The city’s top lawyer says there are so many holes in the so-called “grouper law” that a football team can run through it.
Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said he sees almost no way, and little reason, to enforce the law against large unrelated groups living together.
That displeases City Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard, who would like the Union Triangle to feel more like a neighborhood than a college dorm. She wants the law enforced against the groups of college students living together in the historic neighborhood’s large, mansion-style houses.
The Union College football team provides a working example of why that’s not possible.
Even the team can meet the city’s definition of a family, making it nearly impossible to prove they’re in violation of the law, Van Norden said.
Ten members of the team — who live in a single-family house at 20 Union Ave. — pay the rent jointly, have leased the house for years and, when they make meals at the house, eat together. Although the tenants change as seniors graduate, juniors move in to take any available slot. The team renews the lease each year and leaves its furniture at the house year-round, even though no one is there all summer.
Van Norden said that shows that they have permanence, shared expenses and the social functions of a family — requirements specified in the city law.
“It sounds like they are meeting at least a portion of the definition of a family,” Van Norden said.
Despite recent criticism from one resident who wants the grouper law enforced, Van Norden said he also sees little reason to stop the students from living together.
Only a couple of the football players, for example, have cars, and only a moderate amount of trash is produced since they all eat on campus. That means there’s little to justify a prosecution that hinges on the negative impact of a larger-than-normal residential group.
“At some level we exercise discretion,” Van Norden said. “How serious an affront is it? How serious would the density affect the neighborhood?… Large families present the same density impact.”
He said he isn’t inclined to enforce the law unless there’s “some serious adverse impact to the community.”
That decision did not sit well with neighborhood resident James Livingston, who for years has tried to get the city to ban large groups of students from living together. After hearing Van Norden’s decision, Livingston declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Blanchard, who also lives in the neighborhood, said she adamantly opposes Van Norden’s decision on the law.
“The city passed this law for a reason,” she said. “It digs into the viability of a neighborhood … loud parties, a lot of noise. They all have cars and there’s no space for 10 cars at any of these houses.”
Even if all the students behave, she said, she simply prefers owner-occupants, rather than tenants, in her neighborhood’s single-family houses.
“We need all the families we can get,” she said. “Owner-occupants are important to a neighborhood because they have a financial investment in the neighborhood. They are more likely to be concerned by the state of the neighborhood and their neighbors, and they’re more likely to get involved in neighborhood and city organizations.”
Despite those arguments, Van Norden said, the law doesn’t seem rational because it doesn’t explain why five unrelated adults can’t live together when related adults can.
Union College students said they also don’t understand why the city would want to ban large groups. They figure the mansions near the college are unlikely to be filled by the single families, as zoning would dictate.
“Not unless you find the Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family,” said Charles Kaliades, 20, a junior from Ridgewood, N.J. He is a wide receiver on the football team.
Quarterback Vito Pellerito added that the students save money by living off campus if they can split the cost with a sizable group.
“I didn’t think the law made any sense,” the 22-year-old senior from Fort Lauderdale said. “It kind of hinders you finding a place to live.”
Residents who live near the team say they haven’t had any problems with drunken parties. The team, which has had years to perfect its relations with its neighbors, follows two cardinal rules: don’t party every weekend and don’t let anyone wander outside to vandalize property.
But there’s more to living off-campus than partying, Pellerito said. He considers it part of the maturing process.
“It gives you a sense of responsibility, cleaning up after yourselves,” he said.