ORONO, Maine — If the company that owns the largest student-housing complex in town doesn’t address numerous violations of local rules and ordinances, hundreds of its tenants could end up having to find somewhere else to live, officials said this week.
Two years of discussions and correspondence with The Grove’s management have resulted in limited success getting parent company Campus Crest Communities to address the problems, town officials said, which forces them to look at other ways to get the company’s attention, in part through its pocketbook.
Town Manager Sophie Wilson and Police Chief Josh Ewing said that problems at The Grove, which houses up to 620 mostly student renters, have become such a public safety issue that on Sept. 8 they raised the possibility of revoking The Grove’s certificate of occupancy, which essentially would shut the complex down.
During a council committee meeting on Monday night, Wilson presented drafts of proposed revisions to the town’s ordinances on disorderly properties and on the recovery of police costs for being called out to large parties on private property. She said the drafts were meant to serve as a starting point and the changes will be considered in the weeks ahead.
“We are all in agreement that it needs a major rewrite but at this point in time our goal is to get something on the books so that we can notify the public of changes and be ready when party season starts back up,” Wilson said.
“I want to tell you right off the bat that I have been talking with the [town] attorney this past week to push for as far as we could legally go, understanding that the council might want to reel us back,” she said. “But when you deal with private property rights, there are some limitations to what towns can do, so this is written with the idea of pushing the envelope as far as we really can.”
While the proposed rules would apply to all rental units, from single-family dwellings to developments of 50 units and up, The Grove currently is the only such complex where problems such as large parties and code violations continue to persist, according to Ewing.
“We need a mechanism because of that one place,” Ewing said. “It’s as simple as that. They will comply for a little while and we’ll wind up back in the same place in the spring. … We need some sort of mechanism to make them. The’re not doing it on their own.”
Wilson said that management has been restricting town officials’ access to the site and that the tone of the company’s emails and interactions with staff have become terse.
Campus Crest Communities, The Grove’s parent company, issued the following statement on Tuesday:
“Our relationship with the Town is extremely important to us and we take our responsibility as a landlord very seriously,” spokesman Jason Chabuda said. “As a landlord, ensuring a safe and comfortable living environment for our residents and the surrounding community is our top priority.
“To help better mitigate the risk of future disturbances at the property we have substantially increased our on-site security and are also paying the Orono Police Department overtime to conduct more regular patrols,” he said, adding that one officer is posted at the security gate to check IDs of residents and restrict access to large groups of guests.
“We will continue to actively work in cooperation with town officials to ensure an optimal living environment. We have been in communication with the town inspector about a limited number of specific code violations that we are actively assessing. We are working diligently to achieve full compliance,” he said.
The violations included “inordinate” amounts of litter, as well as life safety code violations ranging from faulty fire alarm panels and broken and missing windows and screens to barbecue grills in enclosed hallways and a retention pond that was supposed to be secure but was left open to dogs that were using it to do their business, Wilson said.
During Monday’s meeting, Wilson noted that the town’s existing ordinance on disorderly properties was written in such as way that complaints have to come from beyond the property line, which she said “made it almost impossible to enforce in some of our larger properties.” In The Grove’s case, buildings are relatively far from its property lines. In addition, police had to be called to a property multiple times before it was designated disorderly, she said.
With regard to recovering police costs, the town is considering declaring disorderly events as public nuisances, which would allow the town to recover its costs and penalize the property owners who aren’t taking steps to prevent big, out-of-control events.
“When we see multiple large-scale responses to large disorderly events, what we’re finding in some cases is that it’s because it’s cheaper to pay us for response than it is to hire your own firm,” Wilson said.
The draft revision indicates that the first police response would result in a warning but a second complaint in a 24-hour period — or another large party within a year — would require the owner to develop a remediation plan to abate and eliminate the public nuisance.
As part of the remediation plan, the town can impose such measures as banning alcohol consumption in common areas and the promotion or sponsorship of events where drinking is involved, banning kegs from the premises, and limiting visitors.
With regard to police costs, the town is proposing that it — and any other responding agency — be reimbursed for actual costs, including the cost for medical treatment if injuries are suffered and repairing or replacing any damaged equipment or property. The current ordinance sets a $500 maximum, plus medical and equipment costs.
Town officials also are considering imposing fines on top of the costs.
“One of the things I have heard [within] the town manager community is that when they put their mutual aid agreement [with Orono] together, it was not designed for us to allow complexes to manage themselves in such a way that they create a large risk to the community, for everybody from law enforcement from nine law enforcement jurisdictions to come in and save the day,” Wilson said.
“When they do that, it creates an inherent risk to public safety and it also leaves the rest of this community without law enforcement protection,” she said. “So this is punitive in nature. It’s designed to get people to manage themselves in a way that they will not cause that burden on [public safety] services.”