Isla Vista’s renowned party scene may take a beating if a proposed county ordinance is approved in the coming weeks.
The proposal – dubbed the Social Host Ordinance – seeks to further punish those who permit underage drinking in their homes. If the vaguely worded ordinance is approved by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors next month, anyone who hosts a “loud or unruly gathering” will be subject to fines, including the costs of police and emergency personnel who respond to their party.
While the countywide legislation calls for the ordinance’s implementation in order to discourage underage drinking, many feel that the proposed law is an attack on the Isla Vista community.
The ordinance – deemed unclear, unfair and even unsafe by some community members – attracted a packed crowd to I.V. Theater on Thursday night. Organized by 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, the town hall forum offered assembled panelists the opportunity to share their opinions on the proposed legislation with a large crowd of, at times, confused and irate students.
According to the legislative language, a “loud or unruly gathering” is any event with at least five people in attendance, two of whom must be minors, that disturbs the “quiet enjoyment” of an area. Circumstances that fall under the “loud or unruly” category include fights, excessive noise and obstruction of streets by crowds, vehicles or even litter.
A first violation of the ordinance will be punishable with a $250 fine, with subsequent infringements costing up to $1,000. However, the host of the party is not the only one on the financial chopping block – the property owner and the other tenants, even those not at the party, can be fined as well.
Farr, who said the vote on the legislation was postponed in order to hold last week’s meeting, noted that I.V. residents had not yet had the chance to speak out on the proposal.
“When this item was first brought up, it was the 1st and 4th district supervisors responding to their constituents,” Farr said. “I did feel my district did not have an opportunity to learn about it and make your comments.”
According to Sue Paul, the Santa Barbara County Assistant CEO and Human Resources Director, the ordinance has been in the works for several years, resulting from a “grassroots” effort of worried locals.
“There was a growing concern about underage drinking in Santa Barbara County,” Paul said. “… The social host ordinance is intended to hold individuals responsible for underage drinking. Any violation of the ordinance is a civil violation, not criminal.”
However, Chuck Eckert, a representative for the I.V. Property Owners Association, criticized the ordinance for aiming to punish more than just the party’s host.
“Use a rifle, not a shotgun, if you have a small target,” Eckert said. “Underage drinking is the target. You’ll be held responsible for this ordinance… and so too will the property owner. You’ve got to think what this will cost you as an innocent tenant.”
Many in attendance questioned possible police interpretation of the legislation, wondering how officers will react in various situations, such as cases when random people enter a party who may be underage without the knowledge of the host, or in the case of a house that has five residents that include minors.
Lt. Brian Olmstead of the I.V. Foot Patrol, however, said the key to understanding the ordinance’s potential enforcement is the phrase “loud or unruly gathering.”
“It’s not the intent of the Foot Patrol to go to every house that five minors are having a BBQ at and drinking a beer,” Olmstead said. “It’s unruly parties. It’s not the mellow get-togethers… we’re more interested in the parties that risk safety. We’re not going to cite every house that has underage drinking.”
One aspect of the social host ordinance calls for “response costs” – the salaries, benefits and medical treatment of any law enforcement, fire or emergency response provider – to be covered by the offender. This clause, according to Associated Students On-Campus Representative Ashley Day, may encourage partygoers not to notify law enforcement in an emergency because of the expense.
“This ordinance discourages safety,” Day said. “It discourages calling for help. Ultimately we don’t want to see this being proposed. Instead, we look forward to a discussion on public safety.”
Throughout the evening, various interpretations were offered up about the implementation of the ordinance in I.V. Some, like Dan Hicks, the program administrator for the Ventura County Limits Project, said the legislation is simply misunderstood.
“No one’s going to jail, no one’s getting handcuffed, no one’s having a criminal record,” Hicks said. “We have ten cities in the county unincorporated, all of which have social host provisions in place. There has not been a discouraging of people asking for help… [and it] doesn’t give new powers to law enforcement to enter your premises.”
Those in support of the legislation reiterated that the police would only break up a party if it fell under the “loud and unruly gathering” category.
“This ordinance is to convince people that are hosting parties not to have minors at their parties,” Olmstead said. “Hopefully… this deters people from hosting these parties that get out of control. The goal is not to cite people, it’s to say here are the consequences.”
Many students, however, were unconvinced. During the public comment period, one attendee asked Lt. Olmstead to identify the minors in attendance, but he refused and repeated his statement about police being concerned only with out of control parties. Another student called the legislation “ridiculous,” referencing the ambiguous use of the phrase “quiet enjoyment” in the legislation’s language, as well as the fact that other ordinances already impose larger fines for parties.
Additionally, Liz Buda, a UCSB student and member of the I.V. Recreation and Parks District Board, called the legislation unjust.
“All laws should originate from the community they impact,” Buda said. “That this is the first forum shows how undemocratic this process is.”
At the end of the hour and a half-long affair, Farr, who did not share her opinion on the ordinance, invited students to contact her office with input on the legislation.