Reining-in 'Animal Houses'

August 16, 1993

The film comedy "Animal House," a depiction of the hilariously destructive ways of a fictional college fraternity, has provided a lot of laughs since its release 15 summers ago.

For homeowners in residential neighborhoods, however, it's no laughing matter when a real-life "animal house" opens right next door or just down the street. The generally raucous behavior of student residents -- including loud music and rowdy parties at hours when most other folks are trying to sleep -- has long been a problem in communities where these houses proliferate.

In Baltimore County, the local government has done little to address this matter. The county requires a boarding house -- with the exception of an "alternative living unit," such as a halfway home for the mentally disabled -- to have no more than two unrelated residents. It's no secret, though, that the owners and residents of most neighborhood boarding houses for college students routinely ignore this requirement. They've been able to get away with it because the county lacked both the legal recourse and the personnel to do proper enforcement.

But now comes a pair of bills from County Councilman Douglas Riley that would give the government more muscle in dealing with this 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 often occur. While the legislation was prompted by complaints from communities near Towson State University, it would apply countywide, from neighborhoods around the University of Maryland Baltimore County on the west side to those near Essex Community College on the east side.

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 file for the previously required special zoning exception. In return, the owner would have to give the county detailed information on the house and its occupants. The hope is that with more landlords holding permits the government would have greater power to close "animal houses."

Community leaders and Mr. Riley himself admit the bills don't go as far as they would like. Yet they believe that the measures make for a good start toward remedying a nuisance the county government has ignored too long.

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