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Georgetowners clash over school's impacts

By Carol Buckley

Current Staff Writer

The penultimate evening of a marathon zoning hearing for Georgetown University’s campus plan spotlighted consistency over originality Monday, with one Prospect Street resident abandoning his written statement to reinforce the testimony of his neighbors.

“It’s all true,” Walter Parrs said of the score or so of tales that preceded his moment at the microphone.

Before Parrs spoke, West Georgetown and Burleith residents recited a litany of complaints about late-night student noise, unkempt rental properties and more.

Aaron Khan said that he had seen both sides of the story, first as a Georgetown student renter in 1993. He then purchased the Burleith property he once leased and lives there now with his family. “Then, I was the only student on the block,” he said. “Now, I’m the only owner.”

Because of his student neighbors, testified Khan, he has had to install soundproof windows and higher fences to block tossed beer bottles. But detritus, marijuana smoke and more still make their way onto his property, said Khan, who does not allow his children to play in his backyard without supervision.

The late-night noise is overwhelming, said Parrs, and has forced him and his wife to discuss moving. “You can’t reside in a neighborhood you can’t sleep in,” he said.

University-led remedies such as a late-night patrol haven’t helped, said Burleith resident Stephen Brown, who made news last year by posting photos of drunken students online.

Zoning Commission chair Anthony Hood hinted that his panel would look to the school to better control its students’ off-campus shenanigans. Hood said that he expects better enforcement than the school currently provides, and “the university’s going to help me get there,” he said.

Residents also drew chuckles during the hearing -- the plan’s fifth -- with their reports of overheard, alcohol-fueled activities, including proclamations of sexual prowess and urination contests.

Monday’s hearing followed quickly on the heels of another session a few days earlier, when individuals in support of the school’s campus plan spoke up.

Brittany Crawford is a Ward 7 resident who credits her success to the university’s outreach program to her neighborhood. Now an archivist with the National Archives, Crawford said university volunteers and a college-prep program were instrumental in her academic achievement and pursuit of undergraduate and graduate degrees.

A Glover Park resident and Georgetown University graduate, Erika Higley told commissioners that the school’s plan has not generated that much opposition in her neighborhood, but most of the supporters are silent. Higley said that she decided to speak up when she decided that “the opposition is not being very logical or constructive.”

University counsel Maureen Dwyer tried to lead commissioners to the same conclusion Monday as she questioned Burleith Citizens Association president Lenore Rubino about newsletters as recent as 2009 that praised the school’s efforts to reduce noise and trash.

“I’m trying to figure out” how things got so bad so quickly, said Dwyer.

Sally Kram of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area echoed Higley’s “silent majority” theory last week. With the help of social media, Kram said, “there’s an ability to mobilize angry people unlike any time in the past.”

But Zoning Commission chair Hood noted that there may be substantial reasons for that anger. “I don’t think one incident would have brought this much opposition,” he told Kram.

The plan’s opponents touched on a topic that neighborhood activists have long discussed but often gets lost in campus-plan chatter. To reduce the impacts of students’ off-campus activity, said Citizens Association of Georgetown president Jennifer Altemus, the school should soften restrictions on on-campus parties.

Two Georgetown University students made a similar point recently in a post on blog Greater Greater Washington.

“If Georgetown improved student gathering spaces, brought back Healy Pub, [and] reduced restrictions for on-campus parties, … many students would voluntarily move on campus and spend more social time there,” wrote advisory neighborhood commissioner Jake Sticka and Georgetown Voice writer Kara Brandeisky.

The hearing will continue June 20.

This article appears in the June 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.