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202 Watts residents leave house

*Editor's Note: As of February 18, 2004 all charges against Michael Rechnitz had been dismissed by the court.*

As many as nine students living at 202 Watts St. moved out of their home over the weekend and found new housing after receiving a notice from the City of Durham that they were in violation of city codes and would be subject to severe punishment, including daily fines, if they did not correct the violation.

Guy Solie, president of Trinity Properties, which owns the house, said the students received a notice Sept. 26 that they were being cited for "illegal use" of the house and each illegal occupant could be subject to daily fines of $300 or could be arrested within 24 hours. "We got clobbered over the back of the head," Solie said. The students, several of whom are members of Eta Prime fraternity, declined comment or were unavailable for comment.

Durham City/County Planning Commissioner Frank Duke said the citation was for having more than three unrelated people living in a single-family home, which is illegal in the neighborhood because of a long-standing city ordinance. Duke claimed to have no knowledge of the threat of arresting the occupants, and said the only punishment would have been fines.

A fundamental difference of opinion exists between Trinity Properties and the city about whether 202 Watts is a duplex--meaning up to six unrelated people could live in the building--or a single home. Solie steadfastly maintains that the house is a duplex and has been since the 1960s, and that six people were on the lease, meaning that he and his tenants were within the law.

Solie said he has documents in his possession verifying the legality of having six people in 202 Watts, and that the city should have the same record. "The planning department's the one that should have a history of all this; that's their job," he said. "It would be unbelievable if they're changing all these laws and had no record."

Duke said the house is not a duplex because it has only one kitchen. Controversy has surrounded the house since May 5, when the city sent a citation to the previous occupants of 202 Watts for having more than three unrelated persons living in a house. The house became compliant shortly thereafter, when students graduated or departed for the summer. This fall, the situation became contentious when parties in off-campus houses, including 202 Watts, led to neighbor complaints and noise violations. Two of the students who moved out of 202 Watts last week, seniors Michael Rechnitz and Edward Hall, were arrested Sept. 23 for a noise ordinance violation and resisting a police officer.

Solie said he believes the neighbors' complaints are the heart of the problem, not a zoning violation that he believes does not exist. "The whole issue here is people in that house have irritated the neighbors to the point that the neighbors don't want them here," he said.

Duke acknowledged that the complaints caused the city to take notice of the house, saying that his department is "complaint-driven." Zoning laws in the area surrounding East Campus have been strongly enforced this year than in the past, said Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations John Burness, largely as a result of pressure from neighbors.

"We've always taken the position that we expect the police to enforce the law and we expect the city to enforce codes," Burness said.


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