City Council tables ordinance regarding new Greek life zoning codes until June

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 - 7:41pm

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Matt Vailliencourt/Daily

The Ann Arbor City Council has tabled a discussion regarding potential zoning code changes to University of Michigan fraternities and sororities until June, hoping to work out details in the legislation before a vote. The zoning code changes, which have caused tension with U-M Greek life members and lawyers, would require future fraternities and sororities to maintain an affiliation with the University or another academic body to acquire a city permit. Under the proposed changes, if a sorority or fraternity loses University recognition in the future, it can apply for a two-year special exception before it would lose its house.

Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, wrote in an email interview that the zoning code changes entered discussion after numerous complaints from neighbors of fraternity and sorority houses and a recommendation from the Planning Commission.

“The City's Planning Commission (a body of volunteer experts in real estate, architecture, and sustainability) first took this up in response to neighborhood concerns,” Ackerman wrote. “Many neighbors of Fraternities and Sororities (more often Fraternities), have had serious issues, which our current Noise, Litter, and Nuisance regulations cannot effectively control. These existing regulations only punish the student tenants, not the property owners. By using zoning code, the City is better aligning the priorities of the property owner with the needs of the community. For example, a landlord may not care if 25 of their tenants received noise complaint tickets. However, that same landlord probably cares about paying off their mortgage, which higher tenant capacity allows him to do more quickly. Our goal is to get the landlord more engaged in problem properties and tenants because they now have a financial stake in their behavior.”

Ackerman also said the ordinance would set a cap on the number of people allowed to live in a fraternity or sorority house.

Attorney Stephen Bernstein was a member of fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi while a student at Wayne State University and now serves as a general counsel to AEPi. Alongside Cincinnati lawyer Micah Kamrass, Bernstein co-authored a letter to the city opposing the zoning codes. He claims there are major issues in property rights being delegated to a third party and giving the University the opportunity to have prejudicial authority over fraternities.

“The issue generally stated is whether the city of Ann Arbor is legally allowed to delegate decisions which impact the rights of property owners to a third party, in this case the University,” Bernstein said.

According to Bernstein, the case is reminiscent of a letter written to The Daily in 2002 regarding “loco parentis”, a legal term referring to the legal relationship of a person or organization that takes some sort of parental responsibility over another. Residents of Greek life housing were subject to University rules until the 1960s and 1970s, when students’ rights protests convinced U-M officials to modify the rules to only affect on-campus housing. Bernstein said the introduction of government regulations such as Title IX made the rules of Greek life housing similar to the rules before the student movements.

“You had almost a full circle from ‘in loco parentis’ to absolutely none, then back to where universities were again really responsible for the behavior of their students,” Bernstein said. “This ordinance converges with that discussion by putting the city into the mix.”

Bernstein said because sororities and fraternities are not obligated to be affiliated with a university, some organizations could lose their zoning ordinance. He also feels the ordinance is unclear as to who would be affected, specifically in terms of organizations that have specific affiliations such as the golf association Evans Scholars or religious institutions.

In addition, Bernstein discussed what he called an “unofficial practice” at the University regarding who resides in fraternity and sorority houses. He said the houses are generally occupied by sophomores and some juniors. Once they become seniors, members often rent “senior houses,” where official Greek life rules would not apply. Bernstein said also many organizations merge together, changing the property status of the house.

“Like them or hate them, the Greek system is an industry,” Bernstein said. “The ordinance impacts the value of these properties. Its property owners have put (in) a lot of money … and they feel that their property rights are being taken away and they’re not being treated equally as property owners.”

Ackerman said the city is within its legal authority to pass ordinances such as the one being debated.

Interfraternity Council President Samuel Finn, a Public Policy senior and member of Delta Sigma Phi, raised concerns about the ordinance’s working definition of “affiliation,” its effects on the IFC’s relationship with the University and financial concerns from alumni, national bodies and housing boards.

When asked if the ordinance would affect the way the IFC handles sexual assault and hazing, Finn said the IFC will stay committed to the way it handles these issues.

“As of now, we don’t see the status of this legislation impacting how we go about handling those incidents,” Finn said. “Regardless of that status, the IFC will remain steadfast in our commitment to improvement however we can in a comprehensive, respectful and collaborative effort.”

Community Relations Director Jim Kosteva released a statement on behalf of the University regarding the zoning codes, saying the University is not directly affected by the amendment but is in consultation with the city to assist them with Greek life inquiries.

“This proposed amendment to the City Zoning ordinance affects fraternities or sororities and thus has no direct impact upon the University,” Kosteva wrote. “As such we do not have any comment. It is entirely within the purview of the City to regulate such land uses. We have been in consultation with City officials to assist their understanding of how Greek organizations are recognized and affiliated with the University.”