Students, town to vote on zoning amendments

by Paulomi Rao | 5/9/17 1:45am

by Morgan Moinian / The Dartmouth

Hanover residents and the Dartmouth community will head to the polls today to vote on nine proposed measures, including an amendment to the town’s zoning laws regarding student residences. The measure, called Article 9, would change the town’s definition of “student residence.” If the amendment is passed, student residences would no longer be required to operate in conjunction with the College.

The current zoning ordinance provides two separate definitions for student residences, one for residences in the institution district and another for those in residential districts. Both define student residences as buildings occupied by students in conjunction with another institutional use, which refers to affiliation with the College. If passed, Article 9 would replace both definitions with a new, general definition: “a building designed for residential student occupancy, which may include living units with social rooms and kitchen facilities for any number of students.” The main difference between the proposed Article 9 definition and the two current definitions is that student residences will no longer need to operate “in conjunction with another institutional use.”

Phi Delta Alpha corporation president George Faux ’84, who has been involved in the effort to pass Article 9, said the measure is a way of maintaining and protecting property rights. He added that there is currently a lot of ambiguity in private property laws in the town, which Article 9 would help clarify.

“The College has its own rules ... but the town rule has been ambiguous, and we think there’s been some significant ramifications of that,” Faux said. “We see students in housing that’s crowded, we see students move into residential neighborhoods, we feel this could help reverse that and bring people closer to campus where they belong.”

If approved, the amendment could allow derecognized fraternities Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Alpha Delta to operate as student residences without official recognition from the College.

A group of individuals submitted a warrant article, signed by 25 Hanover-registered voters, to put Article 9 on the ballot, Hanover town manager Julia Griffin said. In New Hampshire, anybody can submit a warrant article to amend the zoning ordinance, and as long as the measure has 25 signatures, it automatically goes on the official ballot.

Griffin said the College submitted a petition to the town approximately a week ago that will require Article 9 to receive two-thirds of all votes, a “supermajority,” to pass, instead of the usual simple majority. Any entity that owns more than 20 percent of the land in the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s area of oversight has the right to submit a petition requiring a supermajority vote, she said.

According to town documents, the Hanover Planning Board recommends that the amendment be disapproved because the Zoning Board of Adjustment has issued two rulings clarifying the current definitions of student residencies in regard to AD and SAE. The SAE court case is still under current litigation, while the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled against AD and in favor of the town on April 11.

According to the Planning Board, the proposed Article 9 amendment would eliminate direct health and safety oversight of student residences, which is currently provided by the College. The Planning Board recommended approving the eight other measures up for vote. The Planning Board’s recommendations will be indicated on the ballot.

The College also opposes Article 9 due to the possible public safety implications and reduced oversight by College officials, according to a College press release.

Griffin said the town is against changes proposed by Article 9, even though currently the College faces the burden of regulating Greek letter organizations, not the town. If the zoning system was to change, the town would be responsible for the regulations and liability of student residences not operated by Dartmouth. Griffin said that Hanover’s police and fire departments are not large enough to ensure comprehensive enforcement. Town documents also state that the town “would consider implementation of a fee” to cover the additional incurred costs of fire safety and health inspections.

Griffin said that if the article passes, the town will consider denying place of assembly permits, which are required to host large gatherings, and would require private residences to obtain a liquor license from the state of New Hampshire.

Last February, the College derecognized the College’s SAE chapter after the fraternity was suspended from its national organization for violation of hazing policies. Following their derecognition, SAE filed an appeal with the town to continue to be considered a student residence, testifying that the organization should be “grandfathered” in under previous zoning ordinances. The zoning board accepted SAE’s appeal last April when the College failed to present any evidence countering SAE’s claims. Later, the College requested a rehearing, and the zoning board reversed its decision last July. As a result, SAE lost its status as a student residence.

As part of their appeal in Grafton County Superior Court, SAE has attempted to claim that the organization itself could serve as an “institution,” thus granting it student residence status. If Article 9 is passed, the “in conjunction with” clause would be removed entirely from the zoning ordinance. The case was heard in March and is awaiting decision.

Faux said the SAE case and Article 9 are two separate issues, as he believes Article 9 is beneficial to not just students in Greek letter organizations, but also other students who want to live off campus.

The current SAE president, who asked to remain anonymous due to SAE’s derecognized status, said he hopes the amendment will allow the Greek system to have the authority to continue improving on campus.

“This will make the Greek system [have] less of a combative relationship with the College,” he said. “I think this will allow frats to be at a much more equal footing with the College and work with them to make important improvements because the system needs improvements.”

The SAE president does not believe that there will be an immediate push for other student organizations to disaffiliate from the College.

“It’s important to know that we do acknowledge there are benefits to being supported by the College, and I don’t think this is going to create a system where everyone is suddenly independent,” he said.

Vice president of communications Justin Anderson wrote in an email statement that “allowing fraternities and other groups to house large numbers of students without any affiliation or supervision by Dartmouth College has significant public safety implications for the town.”

The SAE president recognized that the College had legitimate complaints about the current Greek system, adding that members within it were also hoping to make lasting changes to improve the system as they too do not want an unhealthy Greek community.

The SAE president noted that many student apartments in the town are operating without problems and are not currently monitored by the College. If Article 9 passed, SAE would operate under the same fire safety codes and other regulations that these apartments do, which differ from College regulations.

“In no other town do they need student oversight for college residences,” he said. “The fire department will still do walk-throughs and check for safety, and an adult will own the house and is liable for something goes wrong. This is not a wildcard for any student to just do whatever they wanted; there is still legitimate oversight.”

Griffin said most town meetings usually see 500 to 800 voters. Hanover currently has 8,000 registered voters. She said she expected to see a higher voter turnout at this year’s meeting because of the heightened interest related to Article 9.

Faux said that he does not know whether or not Article 9 would pass, but that at the least the issue has started a dialogue that will continue past the proposal.

“We are hoping to maximize turnout and do what we can,” the SAE president said. “For students, this will improve the Greek system because it will make real change possible, make off campus housing more affordable, closer to campus and safer.”

Ballot voting will last from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Hanover High School. During the annual town meeting, which begins at 7 p.m., the results will be announced and posted on the town’s website later that evening.

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