Clamping down on 'animal houses'

August 06, 1993

Towson State University used to have waiting lists for its on-campus dormitories. Then the recession hit. Increasing numbers of students began to move off-campus in search of cheaper places to board. Some went back to the "Mom and Dad Hilton," others into group houses in local residential communities.

For the most part, these group boarding houses have posed few problems for their neighbors. Still, youthful spirit being what it is, there are some that have earned reputations as "animal houses," much like the fictional fraternity pad depicted in the 1978 film comedy that starred John Belushi.

The Baltimore County government has done little to address this matter, which actually predates the "Animal House" movie. The county does require that a boarding house -- with the exception of an "alternative living unit," such as a halfway home for the mentally ill -- have no more than two unrelated residents. However, the owners and residents of most neighborhood boarding houses for college students routinely ignore this requirement. They've been able to flout the flaw because the county lacked both the legal recourse and the personnel to enforce it properly.

But now Douglas Riley, the county councilman representing Towson, has proposed two bills that would give the government more leeway in handling the problem.

Based on two years of discussion among county officials, citizen groups and college students, the measures would place more responsibility and liability on the owners of houses where violations regularly occur. And although the legislation was prompted by complaints from communities near Towson State, it would apply countywide.

One bill would enable the county to punish a landlord more severely for "excessive domestic noise." The other would allow the owner of a detached home to get a boarding-house permit without having to take the step of filing for the previously required special zoning exception. The owner would then be obliged to give the county detailed information on the house and its occupants.

With more landlords holding permits, the government would have greater power to shut down some of these "animal houses."

Even Mr. Riley admits the bills don't go as far as he would like. Still, the councilman and community leaders are convinced the measures are a good first step toward ending a vexing situation that has been ignored too long.

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