SOUTH KINGSTOWN — In the hopes of preventing unruly, late-night gatherings, the town council approved a new ordinance on Monday that could impose steep fines on violators.
The ordinance, meant to be a tool with more “teeth” for police officers, was born out of numerous complaints from residents in a Kingston neighborhood last fall. Although most parties are shut down after one response, according to Police Chief Joseph Geaber Jr., in some instances, officers were frequently called back to the same homes — sometimes on the same night.
“This ordinance was brought about to help the police officers who have to keep showing up at the same place, several times, to have a tool to notify landlords,” Geaber said. “It puts them on notice that they’re going to have to cooperate. We can’t keep responding night after night.”
Now, when police respond to break up a public nuisance, defined by the town as a gathering of five or more people on public or private property “that causes substantial disturbance of the quiet enjoyment of private or public property in a significant segment of the neighborhood,” there will be steeper consequences.
On the first occurrence of a public nuisance, there will only be a warning. On the second, however, landlords will be charged a $250 fine. On the third and all subsequent violations, landlords will be charged a $500 fine.
Unlawful conduct includes, but is not limited to, excessive noise, traffic, obstruction of public streets by crowds or vehicles, illegal parking, public drunkenness, public urination, service of alcohol to minors, fights, disturbance of the peace and littering.
Similar to the ordinance in Narragansett, South Kingstown looks to curb unruly gatherings, but to deliver violations notices via mail — not as an orange sticker hung on the front door.
“This is a civil penalty,” Town Manager Robert Zarnetske stressed to council members during the public hearing. “This is not a criminal penalty that’s being contemplated here. It’s a civil penalty. It puts folks on notice. It lets them know that either they or their tenants are causing a problem in the neighborhood.”
Attorney Jeff Melish, who serves on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Board of Directors, expressed concerns with the ordinance — particularly with regard to vagueness and lack of due process.
Rather than using an ordinance to curb public disturbances, he recommended stronger lines of communication and better relationships between residents and landlords.
“I don’t think this town needs to go down this road,” Melish said.
He does not believe this ordinance is necessary.
Kingston resident Richard Moniz, who was one of several community members to express frustration over excessive noise and partying within his neighborhood to the council last November, said the ordinance is absolutely necessary.
Although the neighborhood has become a much quieter place since complaints were brought forward to the council, Moniz said, police officers need better tools to combat unruly gatherings. Disturbances such as this can happen anywhere, he said, and attempts to communicate with the landlords have not been successful in his case.
“When I came here on Nov. 12, I asked you if you could please help the neighbors in this neighborhood,” Moniz said. “I believe you have, just by proposing this ordinance and getting the ball rolling to help police officers.”
While Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo can appreciate first attempts to deescalate disturbances, “ordinances like this come up and they’re placed before you because there are instances which don’t go away — week, after week, after week.”
The ordinance was passed with a few general housekeeping amendments that cleaned up and clarified some language, but council members also decided among themselves to make a second occurrence fine $250, rather than jumping to $500 right away.
The other amendment members of the council made, at the urging of councilwoman Deb Kelso, was placing time frames on the ordinance, running from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Although the ordinance passed 4-1, with only councilman Bryant Da Cruz voting against the motion, due to the fact that the violations will stay with the property for three years, councilman Rory McEntee had expressed a desire not to place time restrictions on the ordinance.
“I don’t believe it makes sense to name a time,” he said. “I think that’s ultimately affirming that anything that exists outside of that time frame is not a nuisance, which I believe it can be. [University of Rhode Island] parties can occur any time of day, and they can definitely occur before 10 or 11 p.m.”
Councilman Joe Viele was also on the fence with the decision of putting a time range on the ordinance, given that even 8 p.m. can be late at night for families with small children.
“I totally understand that tenants have the right to enjoy their property — until they start to negatively affect their neighbor’s ability to enjoy their property,” Viele said.