Boulder officials are proposing a new ordinance that would make it easier for police officers to issue fines to property owners who violate the city’s code requiring upkeep of yards and prohibiting trash on public sidewalks and streets.
The ordinance, scheduled for a public hearing at the Boulder City Council meeting on Feb. 16, is the latest response to nuisance complaints among residents who live near CU Boulder student neighborhoods, including University Hill, Goss Grove and Martin Acres.
Residents who own homes in student neighborhoods have long voiced concerns about loud parties and their aftermath, including Solo cups strewn about sidewalks. In September 2022, the Boulder City Council approved a new ordinance that makes it easier for officers to write tickets for “unreasonable noise.”
City code across Boulder prohibits the “growth of weeds to a height greater than twelve inches” and trash spilling into the public right-of-way. Currently, police officers post warnings on the doors of homes that are in violation of the code.
If tenants and property owners do not resolve the issue within the time specified on the warning, the officer can deliver a summons — either to the tenant or property owner — to appear in municipal court. A judge determines the fine amount, but it is typically $100 for a first offense, according to a Feb. 2 city staff memo. Whomever is served the summons has to go to court and pay the fine.
This process can be time-consuming and laborious, city officials say, often requiring officers to spend hours tracking down anyone associated with the property to serve the summons, with limited success. Owners may live in other states or students may be on break.
The proposed revisions would move this criminal enforcement process, which relies on serving a summons, to a civil process, which relies on issuing citations. The new process seeks to hold property owners more accountable, in part by sending the citation — by mail or email — directly to those who are listed in Boulder County’s property records as the owners.
The fines would range from $100 for the first violation to $500 for the third. The property owners would not be ordered to appear in court. They would be able to contest the violation by requesting a hearing, similar to how people contest certain traffic tickets.
“This just makes the process very clear and very consistent,” Jennifer Riley, a city code enforcement supervisor with the Boulder Police Department, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
Riley said the city does not expect to issue more tickets under the proposed ordinance. She said of the 2,000 or so tickets issued for outdoor nuisance violations in 2022, about 90% resulted in voluntary compliance.
The ordinance does not change the current requirement in city code that an officer provide a “notice of violation,” or warning, before issuing a ticket.
The Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, which represents rental property owners and managers, opposes the ordinance. The group said it worries mailing the fine will leave landlords too little time to contest it. (The police department has said it will begin emailing warnings and citations as soon as February 2023. But the association said it wants the ordinance to explicitly state that the warnings will be emailed.)
The association said property owners will ask tenants to pay the fines. It has said this would be a “cumbersome” process.
“Ultimately the property manager/owner is holding the tenants accountable for their actions which requires a large amount of staff time on our part,” Meghan Pfanstiel, a government affairs coordinator with BARHA, wrote in an email to city officials on Nov. 4.
The proposed ordinance, Pfanstiel said, “will make it too easy to fine, leaving all the due process after the fact and increasing our workload considerably.”
Students are concerned this process will strain their relationships with landlords, according to Chase Cromwell, the director of legislative affairs for the CU Boulder Student Government.
“You really risk creating a big rift between some tenants and property managers,” Cromwell said. “It makes it a lot more difficult and complicated for students, and tenants in general, to dispute claims or to rectify the concern.”
The city’s decision to use citations to address the issue of trash and weeds is “not a great way to help students understand and bring students into this idea that they live in a community and they’re responsible for up keeping their property,” he said.
Riley, of the city’s police department, said students will still be able to appeal the fines directly with the city, even if the citation is sent to the landlord.
‘A true seat at the table’
The latest ordinance has struck a nerve with some students who feel it is a punitive response to issues on University Hill, potentially fueling longstanding tensions in the community.
In the fall of 2020, after the University of Colorado invited students back to campus, Covid-19 cases spiked among young adults in Boulder. The university responded by imposing strict stay-at-home orders, ultimately suspending 45 students for socializing or leaving their homes.
The following March, a party on University Hill resulted in relatively significant property damage and arrests. The incident, widely dubbed a “riot,” catalyzed an effort to crack down on parties. In September 2022, the Boulder City Council revised its noise ordinance to make it easier to issue fines for playing loud music.
The latest code changes were drafted by the The University Hill Revitalization Working Group, which formed in 2015 to make “quality of life improvements on University Hill.” The group includes people representing the City of Boulder, CU Boulder, neighborhood associations, property managers and students.
In response to the latest recommendations on trash and weeds, the executive branch of the CU Boulder student government described its role on the working group as “performative.”
“Our students are not seen as equal members of this community and are instead treated like temporary disruptions to homeowners’ lives. We deserve a true seat at the table where our own voices hold the same weight as those around us,” states a Nov. 15, 2022 letter from the tri-executives.
Cromwell, who represents the executive branch, said the students feel as if they have not had a role in setting the agenda for the University Hill working group. He said students want help from the city addressing issues of sexual assault, gun violence and the need for a grocery store. (The nearest one is about two miles from University Hill.) The working group has mainly discussed noise, fireworks, trash and weeds.
“When people here talk about neighbors, it’s understood that we’re not talking about students, we’re talking about non-university-affiliated people. And so when you have those kinds of distinctions, it’s really hard for students to get engaged and see themselves as part of the community,” he said.
By addressing issues students care about, Cromwell said, students might feel more of a connection to the community and, as a result, have a greater sense of responsibility for up keeping their homes.
“If we took some of these issues a little bit more seriously, it would be a lot easier for most, if not all students, to say, ‘okay, like I live here and part of this community,’” Cromwell said.
In the proposed ordinance, students and property managers also sought to codify certain protections, such as resetting the fine schedule every August. City officials said the process for resetting the fine schedule will be written into Boulder Police Department policy, rather than stated in city code.
Brenda Ritenour, a neighborhood engagement and services manager for the City of Boulder who helps coordinate the University Hill working group, said she acknowledges the ordinance marks one of the more contentious points in the history of the working group.
Ritenour said she wants to spend more time talking to new student members of the panel to help them understand the current agenda of the working group and its history. She said she also wants to be more intentional about creating space for students to participate. She said two representatives from the Undergraduate Interfraternity Council at the University of Colorado, or IFC on the Hill, now sit on the panel.
She said future priorities for the working group are yet to be set.
“We want the Hill to be the place that people want it to be who are choosing to live there,” Ritenour said. “Sometimes those things rub up against each other. And that’s why it’s good to all come around the table together.”
The city is collecting feedback on the proposed ordinance until Feb. 14.