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Town Meeting to take up PSU enrollment question


February 08, 2011
PLYMOUTH — In the grand historical New England tradition of public policy discussion through face-to-face meeting of the assembled voters at Town Meeting, residents of Plymouth will come together to consider several weighty issues on the warrant in March.

Amongst those issues, which include the operating budget and a proposal for the construction of new police and fire department buildings, is a petitioned warrant article, submitted by 25 or more Plymouth residents, to see if the town will vote to request that Plymouth State University "uphold its responsibility to implement the recommendations of the 2003 Meeting Plymouth Housing Needs Report, and stop expanding enrollments until the University can supply adequate housing to absorb a portion of its off-campus population back onto campus."

The article would be "advisory" in nature, but would afford the opportunity for a public airing of concerns from downtown residents that an expanding population of off-campus student residents will continue to erode the small-town residential character of the neighborhoods around the university.

The 2003 Housing Study was jointly funded by Plymouth State and the town of Plymouth and conducted by a team of 18 members, composed of town officials, University officials and Plymouth residents under the independent professional guidance of Russ Thibeault of the firm Applied Economic Research.

According to Plymouth Village neighborhood advocate and local landlord Doug McLane, who presented the warrant article at a public hearing before the Plymouth Select Board last week, the 2003 study recommended that PSU build a new dormitory on campus that would help absorb some of the off-campus students back onto the campus, thus relieving the pressure on the neighborhoods.

Although the new Langdon Woods dormitory went online in 2007, McLane says it has been almost completely occupied by newly enrolled students, and has failed to siphon some of the off-campus student population back onto campus.

In dueling presentations of charts, graphs and statistics, McLane and Plymouth Landlord Association member Don Stoppe debated the exact numbers of off-campus students, with Stoppe suggesting that Plymouth is in danger of suffering a collapse of the off-campus rental market if McLane's pleas are taken seriously by the university. While the numbers question was not resolved in the course of the discussion, the apparent consensus of the residents in attendance was that something indeed has to be done to address the problem.

"One fact is clear — PSU has grown far faster than they have built new on-campus dormitory space," said McLane. "Having a vibrant off-campus population has many plusses for the community, such as supporting local businesses, contributing to the town tax base, and bringing youth and enthusiasm into the community. However, the off-campus population in residential neighborhoods has grown from about 400 in 1985 to perhaps 1,400 or more now."

A number of Plymouth residents attended the public hearing and voiced their ongoing concern to the select board about the ways in which off-campus student behavior undermines the fabric of community life.

Paul San Soucie said that the university and the landlords do not have the same degree of control over students off-campus as they do with students living on campus, and that over the years, this has led to disruptions in the neighborhoods.

Lynn Mitchell said that downtown residents have suffered from noise, parties, parking problems, trash, vandalism and a host of other "outrageous" behaviors, like couches burning in the streets.

Bill Houle said that he was very much in favor of the warrant article and the message, in no small part because of the impact that the student "encroachment" into the neighborhoods has on property values in town, as single family homes are lost and community members flee to other locations to avoid the disruption.

"The problem today is no different than it has been for years," said Houle. "Langdon Woods came online at a good time, but a second dorm was supposed to be built within five to seven years after that. That need is compelling today. This warrant article is an eye awakening call to the board of selectmen and the community to prevent further deterioration of the neighborhoods."

Maureen Ebner said she hoped voters would look to the motivations of the parties to the numbers debate, with out-of-town landlords standing to make a lot of money from preserving the present situation of expanding enrollments and McLane and other Plymouth residents primarily interested in preserving the town of Plymouth.

John Kelly pointed out that the Plymouth landlords benefit from the fact that the town values their properties at market rates for tax purposes, rather than using an alternative "income" approach to valuation that would more accurately reflect the extreme profitability of their enterprises.

"The current situation is a win/win situation for the landlords," said Kelly. "The currently enjoy low, low taxes and high, high income in rents."

"The petitioned warrant article before you is simply the best available way for the overall population of the town of Plymouth to show that they are unified in their resolve to survive," said McLane. "The 1,400 students living off campus and outside the rules and guidelines that only the University can enforce is far out of balance when compared with the 700 or so residents still living in these neighborhoods. The month between tonight and the deliberative session of the March Town Meeting is a good opportunity to talk with neighbors and students and staff at PSU. Let's be creative. Let's talk."

While praising PSU President Sara Jayne Steen for her leadership in efforts to curb the excesses of student behavior in the off-campus neighborhoods, McLane made a plea for increasing cooperation between the community and the university to tackle this problem in the future.

"[President Steen] took over the helm in stormy waters and has helped make Plymouth State University an institution of higher education that we can all be proud of," said McLane. "President Steen already has committees currently working on ways to grow the University without having adverse effects on the town neighborhoods...We want to work together to find ways for the University to maintain its excellence and allow the town of Plymouth to preserve what is best of its small-town character."

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