Remember the group of William and Mary students I wrote about a couple months ago who sought to better connect the student body with the community? They formed Students for a Better Williamsburg, an organization that seeks to engage local government in order to provide the best outcomes for students, and last week they already started to make change.

Until a week ago Thursday night, Williamsburg landlords were restricted by law from allowing more than three people to live in their properties. The consequences aren’t hard to imagine. Realistically, if college students want a fourth person to live in a house, they’re going to attempt it, which brings up the safety issue of not knowing who is in what residence. Furthermore, those houses with four or five bedrooms that by law can only hold three people lead to wasted space. Over 600 houses within Williamsburg contain four or five bedrooms. The three person rule was one of the main obstacles in the town-gown relationship between William and Mary and Williamsburg.

Students for a Better Williamsburg (SBW) and the Student Assembly, though, came together and negotiated with members of the city council. Both groups, working with Vice Mayor Clyde Haulman, crafted a compromise ordinance approved at the council meeting last Thursday, December 10. The ordinance can be viewed here.

The amended ordinance requires that properties within Williamsburg’s four rental inspection districts exceeding 2000 square feet be eligible to allow up to four unrelated tenants with city approval. The properties are also required to contain four parking spots for each tenant. In addition, the same requirements would be extended to B-3 business districts. Landlords would submit their properties to secure the approval of the city’s zoning administrator. Some 49 beds would be added — a minor change on paper — but it’s the start of a dialogue with the council that counts the most for students.

Michael Douglass, one of the co-founders of SBW, remarked upon the ironic contrast in behaviors between the opposed residents and the students supportive of the legislation in an e-mail. One of these residents, Bill Dell, a known opponent of the rule change, expressed unhappiness with the speedy process.

“You all have put things on the table that should be looked over,” resident Bill Dell said, interrupting the vote.

Yet in an August 19 article in the Flat Hat, William and Mary’s student newspaper, one of the planning commissioners remarked upon the need for community participation.

Commissioner Jim Joseph seemed concerned that the community be given ample opportunity to speak.

“We need the participation, yet when the opportunity comes the participation’s not there, and therefore we have to stress that,” he said. “This is a very sensitive issue with a lot of feelings on both sides, and I think we just have to push that as hard as we can to make sure people do participate.”

And in the end, the students were the ones participating with an eye toward compromise.

SBW and the William and Mary Student Assembly demonstrated what can happen with some collaboration and a will to get things done. This is a fantastic example of our brand of youth activism, identifying a need and working the proper channels in a good-faith effort to make change. Yes, things do not always work this smoothly, but in this case, thanks to great leadership and hard work, it did.

Releases by SBW and William and Mary’s Student Assembly are available to read, and video of the council meeting can be viewed here.

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