Near campus, a dirty war over garbage

BY SARA LYNNE THELEN

Published February 18, 2008

Dan Kovel, an LSA senior who lives on East University Avenue, was tired of getting trash violations from the city.

Brian Merlos
The City of Ann Arbor began cracking down on trash violations in 2002. Over the past three years, the number of citations has more than quadrupled as a result. (CENTER: FILE PHOTO; LEFT AND RIGHT: JEREMY CHO/Daily)
Brian Merlos

Kovel and his housemates, who routinely hosted tailgates outside their house before football games last season, decided it wasn't worth it to party outside the house before the Ohio State game. They worried that doing it would draw another fine.

Now, the housemates laugh, recalling the result of that experiment. They came home from the game to find their nearly-empty yard slapped with a $750 fine from the city.

"We almost did it just to prove we were gonna get one," Kovel said.

Kovel is just one of many students who feels the city unfairly targets student housing when giving trash violations.

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje recently called specific streets on campus - East University Avenue, Vaughn Street and State Street - "problem" areas because of the number of complaints the city receives about trash on those blocks. But many student residents claim that, in some cases, their yards have drawn fines even when they were spotless.

"They're going out of their way to try to screw us over," said LSA senior Nathan Wicker, one of Kovel's housemates.

City records show that the number of citations issued has increased each year since 2004, when 62 citations were issued. In 2007, 266 citations were given.

During each of those years, the number of violations was highest during football season. The number of citations nearly doubled during the fall months between 2006 and 2007.

The city cracked down on trash in 2002, adopting a more stringent set of codes and violations called the Clean Communities program.

Hieftje said he developed the stricter codes when he got tired of taking walks on Sunday mornings to see yards where "you couldn't even see the ground." He said he intended to improve the living environment for students.

"My motivation was to help the residents of these neighborhoods not have to live with these kind of conditions," he said.

The penalties for yard trash are $100 or more for the first ticket, between $250 and $500 for the second and up to $1,000 for each additional violation within the same two-year period. The exact amount of each ticket is left to the discretion of the officer issuing the ticket.

To avoid a citation, all trash needs to be stored for collection in bins provided by the city. Additional bins cost $75.

If the property is a rental, landlords have the choice of taking ticket prices directly from a tenant's security deposit or collecting the fees before the lease ends. If the fees are not paid, the property owners will be taxed by the city. This has angered some city landlords.

Copi Properties manager Sam Copi, who rents out about 20 houses around the city, including some on East University Avenue, said the trash code is "bad public policy."

"It seems to target areas that are known to be tailgating, when there are no complaints from neighbors," he said. "I'm not saying it's never justified. But you can park 10 cars in your lawn on a football Saturday with no interference from the city, and if you have 20 red cups, the city will come by and cite you. It seems to counter the football spirit."

The fact that ticket prices vary and citations are issued on a complaint basis confuses many students.

"There's no one on this street that would call in," said LSA senior Greg Goldring, who lives with Wicker. "Everyone's having a party."

Ann Arbor resident Cynthia Nixon, who chairs the Oxbridge Neighborhood association - an area that includes Zeta Beta Tau, a house that received 13 trash tickets in 2007 - said the neighborhood has a watch system that keeps trash under control.

"The city is very responsive," she said. "That's why there's more violations, the city has given people a vehicle to complain."

Nixon said neighbors regularly monitor the cleanliness of the student houses in the neighborhood and call the city when they find trash.

"We just don't feel that young boys can maintain a historic house," she said.

Engineering senior Joseph Lee has lived at Lambda Phi Epsilon, also part of the Oxbridge Neighborhood, for the past three years. He said he was surprised to hear about the messy reputation of Zeta Beta Tau, because the house is far from the road and is surrounded by trees.

"You really have to go in there to see if they're, like, trashed or something," he said.

Lee and his 12 housemates were ticketed eight times in 2007. He said the house decided to split the cost of a dumpster with neighbors after the repeated tickets - which he and his fraternity brothers paid for themselves - got "really annoying."

"We got ticket after ticket because our yard was 'not cleaned up enough,' " he said. "Usually, small bits and pieces you couldn't pick up by hand."

Lee agreed with other students, saying his house might have been under surveillance.

"I've always thought they put us like on watch or something, targeted our house out of nowhere." he said.

Lee said his house hasn't received a ticket since buying the dumpster in April of last year.

IFC spokesman Ryan Spotts said the IFC has tried to reduce the number of citations written to IFC fraternities by bringing in Community Standards supervisor Mike Rankin to speak to campus chapters.

He said that one problem is that fraternity leaders often don't think to pass on the city's trash regulations during officer training.

"I predict it will become less of a problem," he said. "We are always eager to fix things that are detrimental to the community."

Wicker said he and his housemates hosted football pre-parties in the first three weeks of the season, receiving trash citations for all of them.

"We deserved it," he said. But when the guys started making an effort to be cleaner, he said, it didn't seem to make a difference so they stopped hosting parties altogether.

After Wicker and his housemates received a fine the weekend of the Ohio State game, they fought the ticket in court and the charges were dropped thanks to photos they took that day as evidence. The debris in their yard consisted of two pieces of a pumpkin, a red cup, and a newspaper in a bag.

Despite resident complaints of targeting, Hieftje said he hasn't heard negative feedback about the program.

"Things look 1,000 percent better than they did in some neighborhoods," he said.