The County Board of Supervisors approved a law this week that aims to curb underage drinking by punishing homeowners and renters if minors consume alcohol on their property when five or more people are present.
On Tuesday the board passed the Social Host Ordinance in a 4-1 vote, after hearing from supporters ranging from the Santa Ynez Valley Coalition to Promote Drug Free Youth. If given final approval by the board on June 15,the ordinance will allow police to cite hosts if five or more people gather on private property for a social activity and residents knowingly permit anyone under 21 to drink. The new measure would impose fines beginning at $500 for a first offense and require hosts to take a county-approved counseling program. The law also notes that hosts should check ID cards and insist that minors leave from their parties; if they do not, residents would be cited for a public nuisance.
Mary Conway, a coordinator from the coalition, said the ordinance will effectively prevent youth from easy access to alcohol.
“This is a proven strategy across the nation actually as well as in our own state of California,” Conway said. “It actually helps to limit the access to alcohol to underage drinkers.”
Supervisors also heard from opponents of the bill at Tuesday’s meeting, including UC Santa Barbara’s Associated Students and Isla Vista residents.
According to External Vice President of Local Affairs Cori Lantz, A.S. members criticized the law’s definition of a party as not applicable to Isla Vista. A college town like Isla Vista, Lantz said, usually has houses comprised of numerous roommates on one lease — so renters could possibly be held responsible for parties they didn’t participate in or sponsor.
“The fact that five people is considered a party or gathering is extremely concerning,” Lantz said. “I personally live with six people, and that’s a low number in I.V. I also have been that person that comes home at 1 a.m. [and] my house is having a huge party and I didn’t know about it.”
3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who cast the only opposing vote on the ordinance, said she also felt uneasy that renters unrelated to a party could be cited.
“That wasn’t really answered at the hearing,” Farr said. “I can understand why the students would see that as a real concern.”
According to Farr, another concern about the ordinance is that new civil regulations would need to be incorporated into the budgets of county departments before it could be sufficiently funded.
“The Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health department is undergoing a severe budget shortfall and the current programs that we have for alcohol and drug prevention programs are being cutback severely,” Farr said. “I mentioned all of this but the board decided to go ahead with it anyway.”
A.S. members also criticized the bill’s timing. In its current form the bill provides for a 90-day educational period before the law could take effect, so that county residents could learn about its new rules. According to Lantz, this wait would cause the bill to take effect during the summer and provide most local residents with little to no time to become aware of it.
Conway said she agreed with student criticism and would support postponing the ordinance.
“It’s not about trying to bust people, it’s about trying to educate people,” Conway said. “I would like to see personally that we have all of September and all of October.”
Local authorities already have legal authority to break up parties under the county’s public nuisance laws, if rough body contact or a keg is visible to the public.
Though the SHO allows authorities to cite hosts for allowing minors to drink if parties have five or more people, Isla Vista Foot Patrol Lieutenant Brian Olmstead said the Sheriff’s Dept. only intends to use the law to break up parties that cause significant disturbances.
“Those are the parties that we’re interested in dispersing,” Olmstead said. “If it’s five guys and they’re having a barbeque and they’re not disturbing anyone, we’re not concerned with that.”
According to Olmstead, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff will soon outline a set procedure for enforcing the ordinance. Hopefully, he said, this will correct general misunderstandings about the law that have led some to fear that police will break up parties and enter houses unreasonably.
“There are a lot of fears that this ordinance gives us more authority to go into people’s house and search around,” Olmstead said. “It doesn’t give us more authority than we already have.”