The mayor and Auburn City Council responded to students over the city's unrelated occupancy rule Tuesday, making clear they support enforcing current law while agreeing to meet and work with SGA representatives and students who believe the law unfairly targets them.
"We've got to get to a point where people really believe we're serious about it," said Mayor Bill Ham of the rule, which prohibits more than two unrelated individuals from living together in many areas of the city.
The city has been subject to criticism from both sides for not fairly enforcing the rule.
The ordinance, enacted in 1982, is intended to maintain the character and family-friendly atmosphere of the city's older and more residential neighborhoods by prohibiting three or more unrelated people from living together including students who might rent a house for school.
Those living in areas of the city zoned as neighborhood conservation (NC-prefixed) districts, limited development districts (LDD) or development districts (DD-prefixed) are living under the unrelated occupancy ordinance and could face eviction or court summons if a complaint is filed against the household.
The discussion between council members, residents and students during the council's meeting Tuesday night became heated at several points between the longtime residents who support the provisions of the zoning ordinance and the students who spoke out against it.
The students came to speak out at the council meeting after a rash of complaints left more than a dozen students with eviction notices and concerns about where they might move when the 30-day time limit to move out expires.
Two seniors, Hayley Bylsma and Brooke Buckles, started a petition last week addressed to the council asking them to reconsider both the ordinance and the 30-day timeline. It garnered about 9,000 signatures and caught the attention of residents who became concerned the petition might push the council to amend the ordinance.
"I would like to urge the council not to give in to the mass hysteria on social media," said Bob Lowry, a resident of Payne Street, part of the area that has become the focal point of the discussion over the ordinance.
The city has received 17 complaints from the public against homes potentially in violation of the ordinance — the most in years, according to Planning Director Forrest Cotten. Of those 17, six households were served with violations. Most were along Payne Street and Dumas Drive.
"I ask you to put yourselves in our seats," Buckles said. "We are hardworking students. We have not received noise complaints. We have not received any sort of complaints except for the fact that ... we are suspected to have different last names."
Buckles and Hayley Bylsma, who live together on Dumas Drive southeast of downtown, were recently given a violation and told they had 30 days to resolve the matter. They live in a home owned by Hayley Bylsma's father, Wayne Bylsma.
"The mass hysteria that has been described, I would like to change that term to students using their voice," Buckles said. "If you look at our country's history, there are some laws that aren't right. And laws can be changed."
Before the mayor opened up the forum, he asked everyone from the public in attendance to raise their hands if they were concerned about the ordinance. Of the crowd of around 75 to 100, nearly everyone raised a hand.
"We live where we live precisely because that zoning protects us and allows us to quietly enjoy our neighborhood," said Auburn resident Chip Townsend, who spoke out in favor of keeping the ordinance as is. "The problem is you're mad at the city, and you ought to be mad at your landlord."
Townsend said those who own and rent out houses should be responsible, understand the rules and shouldn't have rented out the property to students if they would be in violation of the ordinance.
"If I had a child there, I think the landlord would need a lawyer because I'd have one," Townsend said. "I believe the best way to make this work better is to go forward from here and not only enforce the law … but I would love to see the city impose some real consequences to the landlords."
But Townsend said if the students and parents are aware of the ordinance, they share a burden of responsibility to follow the law.
Wayne Bylsma, who played football at Auburn for former head coach Pat Dye, said he and his wife planned to use the house as a game-day spot and as a place to retire. In the meantime, Hayley and her roommates were using it for school.
Both said they had no idea about the ordinance because they bought the property and built a home in 2015. In doing so, he said he had to submit plans to the city for approval and no one said anything about the zoning ordinance.
In April 2016, during the spring of Hayley Bylsma's sophomore year, police came to the newly built home early in the morning and informed them a complaint had been filed with the Planning Department, Hayley said Tuesday night after the meeting.
Hayley Bylsma wasn’t there at the time because she was overseas, she said in an earlier interview with The Plainsman, but her roommates were there. No further action was taken and they didn't believe there was any issue, she said.
Wayne Bylsma said at the meeting Tuesday that he was not previously aware of the ordinance when they built their new home on a previously vacant lot.
"I've never heard of such zoning," Bylsma said. "How was I supposed to know? Students live all up and down our street. The bus services our street. Obviously, if it's on the bus route, everyone knows students live on that street."
But Ham and Ward 5 Councilwoman Lynda Tremaine equated lack of knowledge of zoning ordinances with speeding and claiming ignorance of the speed limit to get out of a ticket. In the end, they said, you're still violating the law.
One of the major complaints from students who spoke at the council meeting was that they felt targeted. They believe they are being discriminated against by the city because they are students. That complaint was also a focus in the petition.
"There is no place in Auburn where an Auburn student cannot live," Tremaine said after the meeting, noting that two unrelated students could live together anywhere in the city. "All this ordinance does is to help protect neighborhoods. Zones are in place in every community. They are there to maintain order."
Ham said he believes the issue shouldn't drive a wedge between students and residents in Auburn.
"I hate when we have ... this group against another group," Ham said. "There is nothing healthy about that issue. Auburn University has been here for a long, long time. ... Its contributions to this community are too vast to even think about. But I, too, understand the neighborhood issues."
Ward 7 Councilman Gene Dulaney echoed that sentiment.
"We all value that this is a college town," Dulaney said. "The University and the student body is part of that. The student body is a valuable part of our community. Quite frankly, you bring an energy and a spark to the life of this community that adds to the quality of life for all of us."
He said it doesn't need to be a student versus non-student issue.
"It's trying to make sure that we all coexist in the best way possible," Dulaney said. "The city is not trying to be punitive. We're not trying to pick on students. We appreciate that you're here and that you're a part of Auburn."
The mayor and city manager have scheduled a meeting later this week with SGA President Jacqueline Keck to discuss a path forward with discussions about the ordinance. Keck, who attended the meeting and spoke out, said she hopes the city will take academic success into consideration in terms of enforcement and eviction timelines.
"If they get 90 days it gets them near toward December when they're able to finish up their finals," Keck said. "I would ask for special consideration for that, especially for the students who are graduating in December because it's really hard to find a two-month lease."
Ham said the council has no plans to amend the ordinance, and no action was taken Tuesday.