Gorham pushes back on fraternity issues
By Robert Lowell
GORHAM – Gorham must now figure out how to implement its newest ordinances – regulating existing fraternities and sororities and banning new ones – enacted Tuesday in front of a packed Town Council chambers.
One ordinance, which becomes effective in 30 days, requires existing fraternities and sorority houses to be licensed by the town.
Town Manager David Cole said Wednesday the annual licensing fee is $25.
“As for implementing the ordinance, it will take a while to sort out the steps,” Cole said.
The council also approved accepting an $81,000 bid for a former fraternity house seized by the town for delinquent taxes.
The meeting was packed with fraternity and sorority members, University of Southern Maine officials and students, along with neighbors of downtown fraternity houses.
Town leaders have cited years of disruptive behavior by students in a downtown neighborhood as leading to the council action for a ban.
“There’s 20 years of abuse of neighbors on Preble Street,” Town Councilor Burleigh Loveitt said.
The Town Council voted 4-2 (Noah Miner and Matt Mattingly opposed, Phil Csoros absent) to ban new off-campus fraternities and sororities in Gorham. The ban doesn’t apply to existing fraternity houses – Sigma Nu on School Street and Delta Chi on Preble Street. In a separate vote, the council voted 5-1 (Miner opposed) to regulate and license existing fraternities.
The ban disappointed John Turner, president of Delta Chi fraternity.
“I wish people could see the benefits of fraternities and sororities,” Turner said after the vote. “Some people might not get that benefit because there’s only two fraternities.”
Loveitt, who said citizens need protection, said cars have been keyed, windows broken and he cited numerous police calls to the area.
Tim Allard, a longtime resident of Preble Street, cited behavioral issues, including noise and mischief, on his street.
“I’m in favor of the proposal,” Allard said.
But a university student, Jacquelyn Green, called the ban discriminatory.
Last fall, the university issued a set of guidelines governing students not living on the Gorham campus. “We have followed these the past year,” Turner told the Town Council.
But Preble Street residents claimed problems continue in the neighborhood, and Loveitt pointed to a party on Preble Street requiring police action four days before Tuesday’s meeting.
Scott Files, a Preble Street resident, favored the ban and advocated the fraternities be located on the university campus.
“We get beer bottles in the front yard,” Files said about Thursday party nights.
But, Miner didn’t believe the ban would be a solution. “Legislating behavior is difficult to do,” Miner said.
Mattingly agreed. “The ban won’t curb behavior,” he said.
Mike Phinney, council chairman, said an option could be to locate the fraternities on the campus. “Fraternities are going the way of the dinosaurs,” Phinney said.
Craig Hutchinson, a university official, cited the behavior guidelines and said regular meetings with neighbors would continue.
“I was under the impression there had been improvements,” Hutchinson said, referring to behavior.
But, Files said, “nothing is changing” and he has stopped going to the meetings.
“We get harassed. People are afraid of retaliation,” Files said.
“We as neighbors have a right to peace and quiet,” Allard said.
Loveitt, who grilled Hutchinson, questioned the effectiveness of the university guidelines instituted last November.
“It’s blather in action,” Loveitt said.
But Hutchinson maintained there had been progress in behavior during the past year.
Directing his comment to university students, Loveitt said, “Your misbehavior has been chronic and sustained over the years. Behavior improved when the town started pushing back.”
Dan Santos, president of the Inter Fraternity Council, objected to the new regulations.
“The last year there has been significant improvements,” Santos said. “Give us a chance.”
Santos asked for a clarification about consequences for residents if a fraternity didn’t receive a license.
“They would have to vacate the property,” Cole said.
Regulations slapped on fraternities require advance notification to police and fire departments when a mass gathering is expected with 15 or more guests; meeting safety codes and be current on taxes; and no more than five police responses requiring action attributed to violations by the fraternity.
The Town Council approved accepting an $81,000 bid from Peter Wentworth for 27 Preble St., the former fraternity property seized by the town.
Wentworth, who lives at the corner of Preble and Elm streets, was uncertain as to what the town would allow for future use of the property. He is considering possibly two apartments in the house or a small business on the first floor and an apartment upstairs.
Wentworth has an embroidery business now in South Portland that could be relocated to the property. “We’re not going to tear it down,” Wentworth said.
The town set a bid minimum at $35,000 for the property to recoup back taxes and legal fees.
Marie-Noelle Cess, who held a mortgage on the property, asked the Town Council on Tuesday to consider her as a beneficiary of any leftover funds.
A lawyer representing Cess told the Town Council in June his client as the mortgage holder was owed $160,000.
Cess said she learned about the town seizing the property from her mother, who read about it in the American Journal. She said she had been told the town is not in the business of foreclosing and she believed the fraternity had a tax payment plan.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Cess said. “Consider me, please.”