LEWISTON — A few weeks ago, police officers responded to a house party at Main Street and Mountain Avenue near Bates College.
A neighbor reported that during the commotion of the party, a student had been set on fire by his friend, and rolled in a snowbank to extinguish it.
After following up, police found no evidence to substantiate the report. And they declined to hand out $300 fines to those attending the party, which they could have done under the city’s new laws.
Six months after the city passed sweeping ordinance changes in response to rising complaints from people living near the college, neighbors and police say incidents such as the alleged fire prank — and public urination, excessive noise and littering — have decreased markedly.
However, members of Bates College student government say the new rules have created a rift between students, Bates administration and the city they call home for most of the year.
In the fall of 2017, elected officials passed a “nuisance party” ordinance, a nighttime parking ban and updates to the city code on lodging houses after months of pressure from Bates College neighbors who were fed up with loud parties hosted by students living off campus.
The results have been welcomed by neighbors, but students’ reactions have been mixed. Some say they understand the situation and have toned down their parties. Others say there’s no need for “overreaching” ordinances and that everything has been blown out of proportion.
Bates student President Walter Washington and other students believe the ordinances were created based on a perception of Bates students that is wrong.
“We are not all affluent, privileged imbeciles who refuse to acknowledge the world around us,” he said in an email. “And it is my firm belief that the false perception of Bates students is where the foundation of these ordinances lies.”
Some students also feel as if Bates administrators did not stick up for them, especially because discussions on possible city action took place last summer, when most students were gone.
A recent article in the Bates Student newspaper featured anonymous comments from students, including one that read, “The off-campus scene has been completely destroyed by the city of Lewiston and Bates administration.”
So far during the 2017-18 school year, more than a dozen students have been cited for “nuisance party” violations, one of the new ordinances designed to make it easier for police to break up parties without making criminal arrests.
The definition of “nuisance party” in the ordinance includes a dozen conditions, including underage drinking, noise, parking, public urination, littering. If police witness one or more of those, the $300 fine for a first offense can be imposed.
After a second violation, the landlord is subject to a fine of at least $500 if he or she doesn’t take action to stop the tenants’ activities.
Police Chief Brian O’Malley said this week he believes the party ordinance has struck a “happy medium” between the Bates neighbors and students.
He said the civil violations and fines get the point across to students without, in most cases, resulting in criminal arrests that will remain on a person’s record, which is what police would more often pursue in the past.
Since the ordinance was added to the books in October, nuisance party violations have been issued on four occasions from December through March.
This week, nine students went to court in answer to summonses they received from the Police Department in January, all for nuisance party ordinance violations. All nine received citations at a Jan. 14 party at 26 White St. Each paid the $300 fine Wednesday.
Lewiston Police Lt. David St. Pierre said the White Street call came from a neighbor reporting “loud music and lots of drunk kids.” The responding officers estimated more than 75 people in attendance, and said the music was “certainly loud enough to disturb the surrounding homes.”
St. Pierre said officers cleared out the party with the assistance of Bates College security and took 15 to 20 minutes to identify seven female tenants and two other females who were willing to accept responsibility for the party. All nine were charged with the ordinance violation and were issued disorderly conduct warnings.
Other violations have come at parties at 34 Davis St. in December, 227 Oak St. in February, and 17 Frye St. in March, with a total of five people being cited.
O’Malley likened the ordinance violation — a civil violation — to a speeding ticket. Those charged can either show up in court and pay the fine or contest the charges and go to trial.
Prior to the new ordinance, police would give out warnings for disorderly behavior on the first visit. If police had to return, they would make arrests.
Ryan Lizanecz, a student government representative for the Class of 2020 who also serves on the college president’s advisory council, said that although students have been understanding about the new ordinances, he’s “seen an incredible amount of student frustration with both the administration and the city.”
“Many feel as though the nuisance party ordinances are too extreme since they provide no initial warning to the tenants of the house and give the police the power to heavily fine everyone in a house, even if they were not consuming alcohol or making the noise,” he said.
Many students also took issue with what they said was a heavy police presence during the first few weeks of the fall semester.
For the neighbors, the new system seems to be working.
Maura Murphy, a White Street resident who led the charge last year pushing for city action, said this week that the “drunken” activity seen in previous years has “diminished greatly.”
“There used to be huge numbers of students — dozens and sometimes even hundreds — just milling around drinking and hooting and hollering, and that has decreased a lot compared to what it used to be,” she said. “There are still some large, loud parties, and smaller groups of drunk people roaming around, but not like it was before.”
Bruce Noddin, another Bates neighbor who has been outspoken, said students seem to be taking the ordinances personally.
“We did not fight for these ordinances because of the actions of this current student class,” he said. “The ordinances are the result of the lack of response (for decades) from Bates College administration and the nearly daily disruptions that neighborhood residents have been forced to endure. Most of the off-campus students are kind and respectful.”
At the start of the school year, when city officials were preparing ordinance change proposals, O’Malley said there was a rash of incidents over the first few weeks of school. On the first weekend back to school, he said, a 17-year-old was stopped while walking down a street drinking a beer.
During those same weeks, a Lewiston officer found two people having sex in the bushes outside a large party, right next to a neighbor’s house.
But overall, O’Malley said, the party ordinance has “toned down” the activity in the neighborhood.
Murphy said the true test of the new rules will take place soon, during what’s known as the “short term” at Bates. She said it’s typically been “five to six weeks of hell for residents.”
When students arrived back to school in September, there was a letter awaiting them from Carl Steidel, senior associate dean of students, warning of the increased scrutiny of off-campus activity.
The discussions among city officials, Bates officials and neighbors had come to a head and had resulted in a public meeting at Bates in July 2017. A few weeks later, the city had rolled out plans for the ordinance changes. The nuisance party ordinance passed a first reading in late September, with several students speaking out against it in front of the City Council.
But Washington and other student government members said students were largely surprised this year by the new ordinances, and also by what they say was a lack of support from Bates officials at city meetings.
“We wanted them there, having our backs, telling the city that their perceptions of our students were wrong, and pushing back on their overreaching policies,” he said. “And still, we have seen nothing.”
Steidel told the Sun Journal that the changes were “jarring” for students but said that it mostly changed once a series of meetings was held with students living off-campus.
“We didn’t really have any hard answers until the end of the summer,” he said. “I think some of the frustrations were that (students) were coming back expecting (the same) thing, and they very quickly got a different message.”
Lewiston officer Charlie Weaver has been working as the city’s liaison to the school and students living off campus. Steidel said most students living off-campus now understand the changes and why they’re in place.
“I think they understand why, and have put in a pretty good-faith effort to change their behavior,” Steidel said.
Going into next year, Bates officials are getting an earlier start at communicating with students about the new rules. Steidel said 40 to 50 students attended a recent meeting for those who had applied to live off-campus next year.
At the meeting, students were told by Weaver and Bates security that “the landscape for off-campus living has changed.”
Washington, who does not live off campus, said the new ordinances are keeping more seniors living on campus, and that it’s causing somewhat of a “housing crisis.”
So far this year, the school has been encouraging more on-campus activities. More funding was allocated for hosting campus parties and social events. Steidel said the feedback from students has been “quite positive.”
He said off-campus students he’s talked to have told him they come on campus to support the events.
“I think we’re in a better place than we were six or nine months ago,” he said. “When I’m talking to students, they’re not railing against the city or these ordinances. They basically say, ‘Yah, we had a party, it got out of hand, we’ll have to deal with this now.'”
Stephen Wyer, a student government representative for the Class of 2020, argued that the city’s ordinances were based on “a very select few, and over-sensationalized incidents where parties got out of hand.” He said Bates administration “decided that the off-campus scene was hurting their image in the eyes of the Lewiston-Auburn community.”
Wyer also had a different view on the increased on-campus events, saying that Bates’ attempt to sponsor on-campus events to replace off-campus social life “has generally been regarded negatively, as students don’t want to socialize and party with a bunch of 60-year-old security guards keeping an eye on them.”
Students have also said the nighttime parking ban on neighborhood streets surrounding the school unfairly affects college students.
Lizanecz said the parking situation is putting “extremely high levels of strain” on the campus parking lots, and added there’s been a “significant increase” in the police presence around campus on weekends, which makes students feel as though they are being targeted specifically.
O’Malley responded this week to the comments in the Bates Student article, including complaints that the rules are forcing students to remain on campus.
“That’s where they should be,” he said. “To me, it’s a privilege for those kids to live off campus. I don’t want these kids to be charged. I want them to have a good college experience here in Lewiston. But I also want them to be respectful of their neighbors.”
He said police officers don’t go on campus unless they are called by Bates security, but that officers will patrol the outlying neighborhoods, where many streets abut the campus.
He has also reminded officers that the nuisance party ordinance is in effect citywide. If a similar party occurred somewhere else in the city, the same rules and violations would be handed out. But he said, so far, “this is the only neighborhood we’re having those kind of parties (in) right now.”
The definition of ‘nuisance party’
A “nuisance party” is defined under the city’s statutes as a social gathering or party that is conducted on premises within the city and which, by reason of the conduct of the persons in attendance, results in any one or more of the following conditions or events occurring at the site of the party or social gathering, or on neighboring public or private property:
1. Disorderly conduct;
2. Illegal open container;
3. Outdoor urination or defecation in a public place;
4. Unlawful sale, furnishing, dispensing or consumption of beer or intoxicating liquor to an underage person;
5. Illegal use of a controlled substance;
6. Public indecency;
7. Unlawful deposit of litter or refuse;
8. Damage or destruction of property without the consent of the property owner;
9. Unlawful pedestrian or vehicular traffic;
10. Standing or parking of vehicles that obstructs the free flow of traffic on the public streets and sidewalks or that impedes the ability to render emergency services;
11. Unlawfully loud noise; or
12. Any other conduct or condition that threatens injury, inconvenience, or alarm to persons or damage to property.