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Bowling Green defends crackdown of occupancy law


On a warm fall day, residents and their friends play yard games at 1467 Brookwood Rd. in Bowling Green. City officials hope that its 29-year-old three-person occupancy limit keeps things neighborly between BGSU students and the year-round residents.

Luke Wark / The Blade
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BOWLING GREEN - For college students like Nick Ulrich, sharing a home with four other guys is a matter of being able to afford the rent "plus utilities and car payments and cell-phone bills."

But for homeowners who live next to renters with five cars, five sets of friends who come and go at all hours, and the noise and litter that go along with it, Bowling Green's decision to crack down on violators of the three-person occupancy law is a welcome change of events.

"I am glad there is some attention being paid to it, to see if they can remedy the problem," said Mary Rohrbacher, who lives near a student-filled subdivision on Bowling Green's southeast side. "I don't have anything against college students; I'd just like to see them be more polite about the noise level."

Rental property owners like Bob Maurer have a different take on the issue. He believes that limiting the number of unrelated tenants to three is ludicrous when small apartments in town are packed with four or six students.

The occupancy law, enacted as part of the city's zoning code in 1975, is not unusual. Cities nationwide, including many with universities within their borders like Toledo, limit the number of unrelated persons under one roof in neighborhoods zoned for single families.

The U.S. Supreme Court supported such limits in 1974 in a case originating in Belle Terre, N.Y., where the village said just two unrelated persons could live in the same house.

"That is the law," said Matt Reger, Bowling Green city prosecutor. "That decision said it's constitutional to limit it and to define family in that way."

Bowling Green officials say the law is intended to preserve neighborhoods for families and keep them free of excessive noise, litter, and traffic.

"From the students' point of view, I can understand where they're coming from in trying to save money, but from the community perspective, there's a reason the law has been there," said Councilman Sarah Tomashefski, a recent BGSU graduate. "Everyone keeps saying it's a 29-year-old law. Well, just because it's an old law doesn't mean it's a bad law."

Last week, Mayor John Quinn told students and residents at a packed City Council meeting the city is going after violators by getting search warrants and issuing citations because the problem has grown right along with enrollment at BGSU and tuition and housing costs.

He has given the 35 people cited this fall for violating the occupancy law until Dec. 31 to get into legal housing arrangements, but he said he may be announcing a change in that position when council meets Oct. 18.

"We're not changing the idea that we want to enforce the law," Mr. Quinn said. "But if there are ways to get to the point where the ordinance is being enforced without punishing people, that's the direction we want to go."

In Toledo, a challenge to the city's three-person occupancy limit is before the Sixth District Court of Appeals. Two local landlords, Richard and Larry Ross, appealed Judge C. Allen McConnell's May, 2003, decision in Toledo Municipal Court that said the Rosses' student rental homes in the Byrne-Hill Estates violated the city's code for newer properties.

Last October, Judge McConnell said he would order the owners to jail for failing to decrease to three the number of students living in those homes.

In the meantime, the city is continuing to enforce the three-person limit, adopted in 1994 in response to student housing complaints. Unlike Bowling Green, Toledo's enforcement efforts have been directed at property owners rather than renters.

Bowling Green landlords like Mr. Maurer and Joan Newlove say their leases clearly state only three persons may live there. Both say they can and have evicted tenants when they find out the rule has been broken.

Still, Mr. Maurer, who owns three of the eight houses where students were cited for overoccupancy, said the three-person limit "makes no common sense."

"We have five-bedroom houses that we can only put three people in," he said. "Yet the university leases three-bedroom apartments from us that are roughly half the size of our houses, and they put six people in them."

The occupancy limit does not apply to apartments and other areas zoned for multifamily dwellings.

In Toledo, authorities said their enforcement efforts have been bolstered by support from UT, which Bowling Green has lacked.

"UT is doing a tremendous job, in my opinion, in getting the word out to the students not only about what the law is, but they have handouts about how students can be good neighbors," said Steve Herwat, executive director of the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission.

Bowling Green Mayor Quinn publicly criticized BGSU President Sidney Ribeau for seemingly siding with students on the housing issue.

Mr. Ribeau responded last week that he is concerned about how the issue is affecting students academically and how it could make it too costly for them to attend college if their living expenses increase mid-year because they or their roommates must move.

Mr. Ribeau said he's hoping university leaders and students can sit down with city officials to find an amicable resolution.

Alex Wright, president of BGSU's Undergraduate Student Government, said the students also hope to meet with city officials.

"We can't offer any viable solutions when we're in a reactionary mode," he said. "Our students are scared."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

or 419-353-5972.

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