Boulder City Council will likely hold a public hearing on a proposed stricter anti-noise ordinance for University Hill this fall, after students return to campus. Credit: John Herrick

More than a year after a riot on Boulder’s University Hill damaged vehicles, led to arrests and reignited long-running tensions between local homeowners and students, a city-led working group is developing a set of recommendations to try to prevent a similar event from happening again. Among the goals, the city says, is to deal with trash, noise and firework nuisance complaints in the Hill neighborhood. 

City staff described the measures in a memo sent to the Boulder City Council on June 7, 2022. The recommendations were created with The University Hill Revitalization Working Group, which formed in 2015. 

The most controversial proposal would amend an existing noise ordinance to expand hours during which people can be cited with violations. And it would also give police more authority to issue citations, according to the memo. 

The current code, which is decades old, prohibits “unreasonable noise” from 11 p.m. through 7 a.m. The amendment would allow police to ticket students for noise violations during the day, too, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., according to the memo. Now, residents typically call in complaints before police respond to a noise violation. The new measure would make it easier for police to issue tickets without first receiving a complaint from a neighbor. 

Boulder City Council will likely hold a public hearing on the ordinance this fall, after students return to campus.

The working group has also discussed ways to hold landlords accountable for ongoing violations of ordinances related to maintaining trash, trees and shrubs, and for prohibitions on outdoor furniture.

The kinds of fines or penalties the city will impose remains to be decided. Working group members have discussed referring cases to CU Boulder to issue punishments, such as suspensions, rather than requiring students to pay fines. 

“CU has a much bigger hammer. A $150 ticket is not the answer. The answer is discipline by CU for violating their standards,” Councilmember Mark Wallach, who serves on the working group, told Boulder Reporting Lab. 

In March 2021, following the riot that started at a party near 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Boulder City Council — led by councilmembers Rachel Friend and Wallach — instructed city staff to start working closely with The University Hill Revitalization Working Group. Issues of noise, fireworks and parties remain. On July 4, police said they broke up a party on University Hill in which people were allegedly “jumping on cars, setting bushes on fire, setting off fireworks.” 

The group is made up of about 20 participants, including the two city councilmembers and city code and law enforcement officials, along with representatives from a University Hill resident group, a property owner and management group, student organizations and university staff.  

Brenda Ritenour works for the City of Boulder as its neighborhood engagement and services manager and is a part of the working group. Ritenour said the city wanted to address the underlying causes of the riot and prevent a repeat.

“It was very clear after meeting with the neighbors that this event was symptomatic,” according to Ritenour. She said neighbors “were less concerned about the direct response to that one night,” but rather saw the event as illustrating “larger issues on the Hill.”

Credit: John Herrick

Long-running tensions

Efforts to rein in student noise and address other quality-of-life issues on University Hill have been a longstanding part of city policymaking. In 2015, the same year the working group was formed, Boulder City Council updated the city’s policy on occupancy limits to include stiffer fines for violations in student neighborhoods, including University Hill. (The decades-old ordinance restricts the number of unrelated people who can live together in the same home to three people in much of the city.) Separately, city police typically increase patrols on University Hill when students return to campus, and often issue citations for noise and drinking.

According to the memo, city prosecutors have adjusted how they charge people who violate the city’s prohibition of the possession and setting off of fireworks. They are no longer offering plea deals and instead are seeking the maximum penalty for students who violate the ordinances. This means students may end up with criminal charges on their records and may have to complete community service hours. 

Ritenour described the larger issues on the Hill as “cultural” and said the working group has strived to solve them through dialogue.

But not everyone feels heard. In particular, some Hill residents said they’ve been left out of the conversation. Finnegan Moylan is a CU Boulder student and president of the Undergraduate Interfraternity Council at the University of Colorado, or IFC on the Hill.

Both Moylan and Ritenour said IFC on the Hill, which represents 21 independent fraternities in the area, has not been involved in recent years. The group is listed as a member.  

“Since I stepped in as staff liaison in 2018, we have not had participation from the group,” Ritenour said, adding she hopes it will change going forward after meeting with the organization. 

Moylan said members of the working group “don’t fully understand the student culture that goes around, and you can’t solve the issues if you don’t understand the people who are living [in fraternity houses].”

Members of CU Boulder Student Government currently serve as student liaisons on the working group. 

The city has not released the working group’s meeting minutes or published notices of its meetings. In order to comply with Colorado’s open meeting laws, a city official told Boulder Reporting Lab that the meetings will be open to the public beginning September 21, 2022.

The working group’s information packet outlines short-, medium- and long-term measures to the issues identified by the city in a 90-day survey of the most common citations and complaints police received in the area. Most are vague in detail. 

Short-Term Projects

These are all in the works. The goal is to complete them by the end of the year. 

  • Complaints: The city is working to combine datasets that departments use to collect information on nuisance citations and complaints. 
  • Noise ordinance: The group has proposed modifying the city’s noise ordinance to extend its prohibition on “unreasonable” noise. Currently, that prohibition exists from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The amendment would allow police to issue tickets for loud noise throughout the rest of the day, with more authority given to police to issue tickets.
  • Data sharing: The CU Boulder Police Department and Boulder Police Department have agreed on a data-sharing initiative that will allow them to share certain information about students’ behavior, including arrests. The data goes back to 2020 and is focused primarily on crime data on or near CU Boulder’s campus.
  • Neighborhood assessment: In September 2022, city officials will conduct a walk through the Hill neighborhood to analyze the area. Officials held the first of these walks in May 2022 to set a baseline for the assessment.
  • Landlord training: The working group is developing a landlord training curriculum with  the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association (BARHA), which is also a working group member, to inform landlords about the city’s local ordinances and restrictions. 
  • Easier ways for people to report: City staff are working to develop simpler ways for community members to report nuisance complaints. The working group and other neighborhood organizations are developing materials to educate residents on how to use these reporting systems once they are developed. One of the reasons for the reporting change is to reduce fears among neighbors of retaliation for reporting nuisance violations, according to the memo. 
  • Trash cleanup: The Boulder Police Department Code Enforcement team is adopting a new trash cleanup strategy, moving away from earlier methods that relied on residents to file a complaint with the city and instead towards patrolling neighborhoods and issuing tickets for trash, overhanging trees and shrubs, and outdoor furniture. 

Medium-Term Projects

The working group’s medium-term projects are also currently underway and set to be completed in 2023.

  • Penalties for trash and nuisance violations: City officials are considering changes to the penalties for trash and nuisance violations by making it easier for police to issue civil penalties to landlords without warning for trash- and nuisance-related issues.
  • Civil proceedings: The working group is considering additional penalties for people, including landlords, who are found to have violated nuisance ordinances more than once. The working group says the current system is outdated and needs to be changed.

Long-Term Projects

  • Code compliance: The group wants to use data analysis to move away from relying on complaint-based code enforcement, which it says does not always ensure the city is up to code. 

John Herrick contributed reporting to this story.

Henry Larson was a summer 2022 reporting fellow at Boulder Reporting Lab. He was the editor-in-chief of the CU Independent, the University of Colorado Boulder’s digital student news outlet. His reporting has also appeared in CPR News and The Daily Camera.

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