College party ordinance in works for Cape

Sunday, May 29, 2011
Millie Strom stands next to her Dunklin Street house Tuesday in Cape Girardeau. An unknown person used an ax to put a large hole in the house when she was out of town last summer. Strom has to stuff a towel in the hole to keep birds from building nests there. (Laura Simon)

Some nights Millie Strom prays for rain. When it doesn't, she braces for the worst.

On those weekend nights, especially when Southeast Missouri State University is in session, countless college students gather on a patio about 30 feet from Strom's bedroom window. They crank the music up and the booze begins to flow.

For them, it's a party that lasts until the wee hours of the morning. But for Strom, 83, it's another exasperating night of tossing and turning while she fruitlessly tries to drown out the roar.

In the morning, when the partiers are sleeping it off, Strom spends her morning clearing her driveway of crumpled beer cans and busted whiskey bottles.

Such parties have taken place near Strom's Cape Girardeau home on Dunklin Street for the better part of a decade. For years, she never complained. When she finally did, someone took an ax to the side of her house in what she is certain was retribution.

"I just want the parties to stop," Strom said.

She's not alone. A group of residents who live near Southeast's campus have been fighting for nearly two years to get laws on the city's books to reign in the parties and hold those responsible for making their lives a nighttime hell. "During the school year, starting in September, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, I wonder if I'm going to get a good night's sleep or if I'm going to get bumped out of bed at 3 o'clock in the morning," said Linda Hutson, one of the group's organizer.

The parties have gone beyond nuisances, she said, pointing to recent assaults and stabbings that have taken place at such parties.

While the group has felt largely ignored by its city leaders during the last two years, a response appears to be in the works. At its most recent meeting, the Cape Girardeau City Council reacted to the group's complaints by asking for staff to prepare an ordinance that it hopes will go a long way toward curbing the problem.

Cape Girardeau police chief Carl Kinnison and city attorney Eric Cunningham are working to modify an ordinance that is similar to a Columbia, Mo., law that is expected to be presented to the council June 6. The neighborhood group has been researching that ordinance and suggesting it since shortly after its inception.

The Columbia City Council passed the law against "nuisance parties" in 2006. The law defines a "nuisance party" as a social gathering of 10 or more people on a residential property where any of a list of 11 things occurs, including fighting, littering, illegal sales or possession of alcohol, public urination, trespassing, noise violations and indecent exposure, among others.

While the offenses listed in the ordinance are already illegal in Cape Girardeau, this ordinance would allow police to also cite the party's hosts, Kinnison said. The law would also make it a citable offense for those at the party not to disburse when ordered to do so by police, a power police currently don't have. Fines could be levied for up to $500 and a maximum jail time of 90 days.

Kinnison acknowledged these parties are a problem. In the last 12 months, police have responded to 158 incidents that were based on complaints about loud music, many of them stemming from college parties. In that same time period, 22 summonses were issued for failing to maintain an orderly house, and Kinnison said that those were specifically due to parties. An estimated 80 percent to 85 percent of responses to loud parties are hosted and attended by university students, Kinnison said.

"I think it would give us another tool to help take care of some of this," Kinnison said.

One Columbia official said last week the ordinance there has made a world of difference since it was enacted. Columbia's assistant city attorney Cavenaugh Noce also sat on the citizens committee that worked for a year drafting the proposal that the council eventually enacted. Noce served as the time as the president of the East Campus Neighborhood Association.

Noce empathized with the Cape Girardeau residents. He remembers enduring drunken toga parties with more than 150 people who had spilled out onto the street. That doesn't happen anymore.

"Things quieted down after people became aware of the ordinance," Noce said. "I know everybody felt like it did some good."

The leaders of the group, Linda Heitman, Dub Suedekum and Hutson, believe the ordinance will work here, too. But they wonder why it has taken nearly two years for the city to respond.

Since 2009, the group has held meetings that have drawn as many as 30 people. They have sent out emails and a certified letter to every member of the Cape Girardeau City Council. Members John Voss, Deb Tracy and Loretta Schneider have each attended at least one of those meetings. The group pointed out that Rediger did not attend any of the meetings, which disappointed them.

Rediger said Friday that was not intentional and did not show any lack of concern on his part. Rediger said he was out of town for two of their meetings. Also, the council and staff thought the best way to address the neighbors' concerns would be by implementing an ordinance that would require landlords to pay for annual licenses, which would subject their properties to routine inspections.

"But we're not quite ready to do that, so the plan now is to move forward with something on that party ordinance and then have it eventually fold into the rental inspections," Rediger said. "We need to move ahead with something. We decided we better go ahead and do something with the party ordinance earlier."

There's no doubt parties are causing problems, Rediger said. He also acknowledged that the council, himself included, should have moved on addressing the neighborhood concerns sooner.

"I will take the brunt of it," Rediger said. "We are concerned about it and we are certainly not ignoring it. The things we have been working on should not have pre-empted us from taking care of this issue. But we are ready to move forward."

At the council's recent study secession, Suedekum stood up and asked in a loud voice: "Who's running this city?" He also points out that the city has dealt with other issues before theirs, including bicycle lanes, Frisbee golf and a downtown noise ordinance.

"When is it our turn?" Suedekum asked.

At the study session, Voss directed staff to prepare the nuisance party ordinance for the next meeting.

"They have a right to peacefully occupy their homes," Voss said. "It was also good to bring a solution to the table as opposed to just saying here's the problem. They were great about researching the Columbia ordinance and offering it as a solution."

Voss agreed with the mayor that the delay was partially attributed to the fact that they wanted to tie the rental inspection program to the nuisance party ordinance.

"The neighbors were looking for us to act more quickly," Voss said. "My sense is the neighbors were becoming less patient and they have been very patient. By looking at this ordinance by itself, we're really not giving anything up and we can add the rental inspection program six or nine months down the road if it takes that long."

At first glance, Voss said, the Columbia ordinance would work well in Cape Girardeau and that the rental inspection program will bolster those efforts if it is passed. The party ordinance, Voss said, has "real teeth" and it will hopefully be part of the overall solution.

But Voss did caution that he did not believe it would totally eliminate loud college parties from the city.

"I don't think it's going to be foolproof," he said. "It's going to be a step in the right direction. These are college children, and in some cases they're going to do what they want anyway. But I think it at least provides an opportunity to say 'The community has spoken and this is how we expect you to act.'"

The university also has a role to play, Voss said. Dennis Holt, vice president of enrollment management and student success at Southeast, attended the council's study session, and said it's difficult for the university to monitor student behavior away from campus. Holt said the university could become involved, however, if students were cited with criminal infractions.

But Voss suggested the university can do more.

"In my mind, the university could ratchet it up a little bit," he said. "Students come here and look to the university for guidance and leadership. I think they could be a little more aggressive in promoting responsible citizenship."

Holt said if such a party ordinance were passed, students could be made aware of it at freshman orientation.

The residents, after two years of waiting, want something to happen to cut down on the parties. The group realizes many who don't attend meetings, like the 83-year-old Millie Strom on Dunklin, also deserve a voice.

"She basically has a front-row seat to Mardi Gras two or three nights a week," Hutson said. "That has to stop."


Pertinent Address:

Dunklin Street, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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