By Katia Protsenko
In the mid- to late 90s, Santa Cruz was one of the nation’s top party schools, according to the Princeton Review. But this reputation was obliterated in the summer of 2005 when the city passed the strictest noise and party ordinance in its history.
Loud parties were “the number one thing on the City Council we got complaints about [before the ordinance was passed],” according to Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty.
The city faced a very real problem — college-aged students were living amongst all other Santa Cruz residents, and house parties were often too loud and out of control.
Councilmember Mike Rotkin decided to address this issue, so he authored the current noise ordinance, gathering research and composing it throughout the course of a year. He was spurred to do so by numerous complaints to the City Council from groups like the Santa Cruz Neighbors, the largest neighborhood group in the city.
“It was a pretty bad scene. Neighbors were being kept up,” Rotkin said, adding that the ordinance “intended to create some consequences.”
Rotkin’s noise ordinance passed with a majority vote.
When students returned to Santa Cruz in the fall, news of the ordinance spread quickly, as did resistance efforts.
Jesse Wilson, a UCSC alumnus, co-founded the Facebook group “Against SC Party Ordinance,” as well as the website scpartyordinance.org, to spread word about the ordinance and its strict consequences.
“UCSC is not nearly as fun as it used to be,” Wilson said. He is a local party host and current Santa Cruz resident whose house would host “pay to play” parties with approximately 150 people before the noise ordinance was passed.
Wilson believes house parties were what made his college experience at UCSC, and it is unfair of the city to place such harsh restrictions on something that all college-aged students will do.
“[Police] treated us like the biggest nuisance in Santa Cruz,” Wilson said. “Now we’re scared to death to have parties.”
Although police are initially required to issue a warning without fine, houses that host parties are flagged for 12 months. If there is another noise complaint and the police are called, the first fine is $250, the second is $500, and the third is $1,000. These costs do not include court and other administrative fees, which brought up Wilson’s first fine to $885.
Wilson has been very active in contesting the city’s noise ordinance, but he is among the few remaining activists.
“Students are not very organized and aggressive in political activism,” Wilson said, which is why he believes resistance efforts have dwindled and are almost nonexistent.
Another factor is the lack of student representation.
“Students are now afraid of police, afraid of our neighbors, and we don’t feel like anyone represents us on this issue,” Wilson added.
Councilmember Rotkin noted the lack of complaints the council has received about the ordinance.
The Santa Cruz Neighbors have been very vocal with the council, pushing for approval of the noise ordinance.
The only thing the council has heard from students concerns the overly-stringent fees, Rotkin said, and that is something the council is looking to amend in the near future.
“[The council] didn’t intend fines [to be] as large as they ended up,” he said.
Wilson also added that he doesn’t agree with the university giving money to the Santa Cruz Police Department in support of the ordinance.
Chancellor George Blumenthal gave $25,000 to the SCPD in January for enforcement of the party ordinance, and plans to renew that donation in the coming months.
“As the university has grown, so has the number and size [of parties]. As the size [of these parties] has grown, the problem has increased, and reached a tipping point,” said Zach Friend, spokesperson for the SCPD.
There was a need for something to be done, and “the ordinance works as a deterrent,” he continued.
Jim Burns, acting associate chancellor of communications, explained that Chancellor Blumenthal meets regularly with groups like the Santa Cruz Neighbors, and they informed him that “there were still concerns whether the ordinance was being enforced.”
The money that Chancellor Blumenthal decided to give to the SCPD was to help reimburse the city for officers’ overtime wages, some of which can be up to $56.33 per hour, Friend said.
The money Blumenthal donated came from his discretionary fund, and Burns emphasized that student fees were not being used to make this donation.
“One of the things we’re interested in, is gathering data from the police department,” added Donna Blitzer, director of government and community relations at UCSC.
She explained that the university asks the police force to provide weekly reports of how many noise complaints police answered, and which ones came from houses inhabited by UCSC students.
“There’s a myth that every party is caused by UCSC students,” Blitzer said, “[but about] half of the incidents are UCSC students.”
Burns echoed this sentiment.
“Not all rowdy parties are associated with UCSC students, but some of them are,” he said. “We expect them to be good citizens as they live in [this] community.”
Since there is no allotted “college neighborhood” in Santa Cruz, Burns expressed the university’s, and chancellor’s, obligation to make sure the surrounding neighborhoods were able to communicate with the school administration regarding off-campus student life.
“We owe it to people that live in surrounding neighborhoods that we’re doing everything we can,” Burns said.
But Wilson disagrees with the chancellor’s decision to make, and renew, the $25,000 donation.
“[Blumenthal] is buying the propaganda of the neighborhood association and not considering damage to the students,” Wilson said. “It is ironic that [he] is spending money to make our college experience less fun.”
But according to Rotkin, this “fun” that Wilson is striving to get back is exactly the reason why the noise ordinance was passed.
“Alcohol has become the drug of choice,” Rotkin said. “[There was a] change in expectations of what a good party is.”
Rotkin, who attended UCSC for graduate school and has been a local resident and politician for over 30 years, said parties were much different in the ’60s and ’70s.
“[It was] a different atmosphere,” he said. Parties back then mainly consisted of smoking marijuana, sitting, and chatting. Students would rarely get falling-down drunk.
“Maybe they should go back to smoking marijuana,” Rotkin joked.
On a more serious note, Rotkin added that the noise ordinance is a result of the changing dynamics of college life, and college partying.
“You can’t hear yourself talk in most of these parties,” he stated. “[Students should] organize parties that have more than binge drinking.”
Burns agreed with Rotkin’s belief that the noise ordinance is a side effect of the deeper problem of alcohol consumption in college students.
“It’s for the health of our students,” he said, “but [the students] also have a responsibility to be good neighbors.”