Orange strengthens ordinance to combat out-of-control parties

By Tina Richards

The Orange City Council approved amendments to the municipal code that toughen penalties and liability for underage drinking and loud, unruly parties.

The ordinance, passed at the March 8 council meeting, adds a provision making it a violation to attend a loud or unruly gathering, extends the time period for a second response to “the passing of the next June 30,” and enables neighbors who file nuisance abatement actions in court to recover their attorney fees.

While the city stresses that the stricter ordinance applies citywide, and is not specifically aimed at Chapman University students, it appears that it is.  The action follows months of community complaints about “party houses” in Old Towne, wherein Chapman students spill out onto city streets, are loud and boisterous all night long, drink to excess, and leave beer cans, bottles and trash in their wake.

Responding  police  officers could not often find an identifiable “host” or responsible party to cite for creating a public nuisance or underage drinking.  They could break up the gathering, only to have it reappear at another residence elsewhere.  Violations for repeat calls were limited to within 10 days.

Pay to play

Now anyone attending a loud, unruly party can be cited; the “host” does not have to be present to violate the ordinance; and knowing landlords can be assessed a $500 civil penalty.  In addition, the second call limitation now extends to June 30, the end of the school year.  The costs of the second abatement may be recovered from the violator.

A dozen Chapman students attended the meeting to urge council members to reject the ordinance. One student speaker noted that the language of the ordinance was too vague. “What is a loud, unruly party?” he asked. Another pointed out that the law was, in fact, aimed at student parties, and several others reported the damage it would do to relationships between the city and university, and between temporary and permanent residents. 

Jackson Scott noted that university students contribute to the city.  “We volunteer at CHOC, we coach your kids, we clean up beaches,” he advised, countering the perception that Chapman students are “hedonistic wastrels.”  And graduate Jason Mehta reported that students are not a liability, but generate millions in income for the city.

A receptive city council thanked the students for coming to the meeting, introducing their side of the story and “making their voices heard.”  It was also generally agreed that communication between students and neighbors is the best solution, and in areas where conversations occur, the problems generally don’t.  “Talk to your neighbors,” Council member Kim Nichols advised the students.  “If you are having a loud party, chances are the neighbors will come to you before calling the police.”

Hearty parties

Nichols also assured the student speakers that the city did not consider them a liability, and that the council was merely making changes to an ordinance already in place.  “It’s not you,” she said. “It’s the 4 a.m. parties with 300 people. The responding officer will determine what is ‘loud and boisterous.’ This is a serious problem, and we need to step it up, say ‘hey look, we’re serious.’”

Mayor Tita Smith and Councilman Fred Whitaker both live in Old Towne.  After complimenting the attending Chapman contingent, each stressed that the ordinance was harsh because the problems created by a few students were severe.  Smith reported that a neighbor had awoken one morning to find a drunk student sleeping on the couch in her living room; another neighbor startled a dazed party goer who had entered her house to use the bathroom.

Whitaker cited a party near his home wherein a student was “sitting on the top of the roof throwing beer bottles onto the street.”

The few, the loud

Councilman Mark Murphy said he is encouraged that neighbors in some areas are trying to get along, but a small minority of students have created the majority of the problem.  “These changes to the ordinance were re-quested and vetted by the police department. It gives them more tools,” he explained.  He also pointed out that of the 911 calls received about loud parties, only 20 percent relate to Chapman. “So when we make adjustments to this ordinance, it’s not directed at Chapman students.  But the things we’ve been doing aren’t working.  We need to find a better solution.”

It was Councilman Mike Alvarez who spurred the student party discussion several months back when he voted against Chapman’s bid to expand.  “I voted against the university because I wanted to get its attention,” he said. “I wanted the discussion to get where it is today. There is a triangle of responsibility: the city, the university and residents. We’re part of the problem because we approved it [Chapman growth].  Chapman needs to step up, to create spaces for students to go.  We, the city, have to respond to residents’ needs.”

Council members, individually and as a panel, stressed that the tougher ordinance was needed because the city had to “do something” to stem parties that turn into public nuisances.  The vote was 5-0 in favor of the ordinance.