Littering by university student neighbors prompts Elon homeowner to demand tougher ordinance and/or enforcement

(Photo illustration, not from actual Elon yard.)

The scattering of cans prompted an outpouring of frustration when one Elon resident, situated in a neighborhood heavily populated by student renters, came before the board earlier this month to demand the town take a stronger stance on littering.

“My neighborhood looks like a trash pit. I literally can see, from around the block, every party that was there.”

– elon resident michael geary

Michael Geary, a homeowner on East Summerbell Avenue, just south of Elon University’s main campus, told the town’s board of aldermen that he believes copious amounts of beer cans that he has found around his neighborhood can be traced back to six houses leased by students.

“My neighborhood looks like a trash pit,” he asserted. “I literally can see, from around the block, every party that was there.”

Terming the littering “a public and private nuisance,” Geary went on to call the board to action, saying that the current ordinance’s starting fine of $25 for littering is too low. That fine, assistant town manager Pam DeSoto explained, goes to a maximum of $100 apiece for repeat offenders. During the meeting, DeSoto told mayor Jerry Tolley that citations are issued “often,” though she didn’t specify a tally.

Geary described the town’s ordinance as “weak,” citing ordinances in other college towns and cities across the state — Chapel Hill, Wilmington, and Pembroke in particular — where fines can go to a few hundred dollars.

During the nearly hour-long discussion on February 9, board members, staff, and two university officials acknowledged Geary’s complaint and brainstormed solutions which ranged from revising the town’s current fine amount to board member Emily Sharpe saying that she would be willing to knock on the neighboring students’ doors.


“They’re afraid of the students”
Still, the homeowner, who said that he had spoken to students and landlords, claimed that some of his year-round neighbors were afraid to approach town hall, university officials, or the students themselves for fear of how the renters may respond.

Referring to an earlier meeting with university officials and homeowners about parking and noise complaints, Geary told the board that he had to coax his neighbors to turn out and speak.

“They were afraid to come, because they’re afraid of the students,” he claimed. “They’re afraid of recrimination. That’s not acceptable.

“They’re even nervous about calling the police about noise, because they’re worried about recrimination,” he added. “I’m not.”


Assistant manager points to a “lag” in code enforcement
While the town does contract part-time with a code enforcement officer, DeSoto said that she believes there has been a “lag” in the process of notifying landlords and renters that they are in violation of the town’s ordinance. Those notifications are completed either in-person, by letter, or through door hangers at the offending properties.

Aside from handling paperwork, DeSoto explained that the officer is responsible for replying to complaints and driving through neighborhoods that have been hot spots for loose trash.
Despite the apparent lag in the system, Geary criticized a staff response to a litter complaint; he said it hadn’t been picked up two weeks after the fact.

“We have to do better, and we will do better,” DeSoto assured, later adding that code enforcement would monitor the issue more closely.


University doesn’t keep record of who lives in rentals
Though the university has held meetings with homeowners and holds weekly meetings with DeSoto and town manager Richard Roedner — Roedner was absent from the February 9 meeting due to a family matter — DeSoto said she couldn’t be sure of how much of a response the town would receive from the university, because, she explained, the institution doesn’t keep tabs on which students are living in rentals. The lack of a record also puts the town in the dark, with staff also not knowing who lives in the houses.

Still, she added, the threat of disciplinary action dealt out by the university for breaking student conduct appears to hold more weight for the off-campus students than the town’s fines. Additionally, warnings and subsequent fines are sent to the landlord, not to students.
“It sounds to me like the students are more afraid of repercussions from the university than they are from our police department,” she said.


Alderman says homes in her neighborhood have also become “party houses”
For her part, alderman Emily Sharpe said that she’s watched as homes in her neighborhood, along Orange Drive, have morphed into “party houses,” with litter accumulating in yards and along the street.

“There’s a lot of litter along the sidewalks, along the roads, so it’s a bigger issue.

“Certainly, when you look at what is being littered, it looks like it’s coming from a certain demographic of people.”

– emily sharpe, member, Elon board of aldermen

“Certainly, when you look at what is being littered, it looks like it’s coming from a certain demographic of people,” she added.

Still, Sharpe said that she and her husband’s experience with college-age neighbors prior to moving to Elon was that visiting the students and giving expectations for behavior led to a resolution, a tactic that she advised Geary to try and that she said she’d be happy to carry out herself.


University officials call renter behavior “unacceptable”
Two university officials who were tuning into the meeting through Zoom as they waited to present the board with an update on another topic also chimed in, saying that behavior from the renters was “unacceptable.”

“We believe that our students need to understand what it means to be a part of a community. Just as this university is part of this community, so are our students, so we’ve got work to do.”

– jon dooley, elon university vp for student life

Jeff Stein, vice president for strategic initiatives, and Jon Dooley, vice president for student life, both apologized, with Stein calling it a “long-term problem.”

“We’re going to have to sit down and get creative,” he added, proposing changes to ordinances, enforcement, and the university’s involvement with assistance from landlords, town administration, and police.

“We want to be part of it, too,” Geary said, referring to himself and his neighbors. “We want to help the solution. We don’t want to be just the whiners and complainers. We want to be the ones who help with all of this.”

Dooley, who called the issue “complex,” said the university’s “neighborhood coalition” has looked at ordinances from other college towns and cities, in addition to sending officials to knock on renters’ doors, reaching out to landlords, and carrying out student conduct follow-ups.

“We believe that our students need to understand what it means to be a part of a community,” Dooley said. “Just as this university is part of this community, so are our students, so we’ve got work to do.”

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