Berkeley resident seeks legal action against campus fraternities

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The residential house on the frat row block of Durant Avenue is almost undetectable, dwarfed by the shade of a large tree and guarded by a metal gate. During the day, the street generally appears quiet and unassuming, but the house’s occupant alleges that at night, he faces death threats and roaring noise from neighboring fraternities, which, he said, drove him to move out of his neighborhood — and to take legal action.

Paul Ghysels, who is in his 60s, formerly lived in a home sandwiched between two fraternities and is pursuing a lawsuit against the campus’s Interfraternity Council, or IFC — as well as individuals, organizations and property owners associated with 35 campus fraternities.

The home was first occupied by Ghysels’ in-laws. Ghysels and his wife later moved into the home but relocated after he filed the lawsuit in 2010. His brother-in-law currently lives on the property. Although Ghysels once found his neighbors conciliatory, he said he experienced increasing problems in more recent years that caused him to move out.

“We’ve been having problems with many of our neighbors,” Ghysels said. “In order for us to stay, we need to curb that behavior.”

The lawsuit speaks to longstanding complaints from Southside neighbors, spurring the city to take action. Most recently, Berkeley City Council has considered placing tighter regulations on group living accommodations, which include Greek houses.

But critics of the propositions have said regulations exist and simply need to be enforced. Several IFC executive officers have also met with city administration in order to find a solution to complaints.

Living among fraternities

In the lawsuit first filed Jan. 19, 2010, Ghysels alleges that neighboring campus fraternities had acted to create nuisances, including public drunkenness and excessive noise.

The campus currently recognizes 31 fraternities and 15 sororities, with members of the Greek community constituting approximately 13 percent of the undergraduate population, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

Neighboring fraternities yelled death threats at Ghysels and threw objects into his yard, alleged Yolanda Huang, an attorney who is currently representing Ghysels.

“Fraternities are supposed to be providing low-cost housing. That’s not what they view themselves as,” Huang said. “They’re required to abide by the same rules as any other landlord in the city of Berkeley.”

Though Ghysels no longer resides in the house, he still keeps surveillance cameras on, regularly uploading video footage of seemingly drunken individuals online.

In a video posted by Ghysels on Jan. 20, an individual is seen tripping over a trash can while directing expletives at a passer-by. Another video uploaded in February shows a car being driven on the sidewalk.

IFC president James Stewart said the body could not comment on ongoing legal cases. IFC vice president of external affairs Daniel Saedi, though, said the council has seen “tangible results” in its efforts to respond to neighborhood complaints, especially by prohibiting hard alcohol in common areas at open parties.

Regulations in place

Fraternity houses located on Piedmont and Durant avenues are zoned as multifamily residential buildings and have an exterior noise limit of 55 decibels — akin to that of an indoor conversation — between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

In response to neighborhood complaints, Berkeley Police Department works in tandem with UCPD, as well as the Southside Safety Patrol — a joint police patrol by the two departments — on weekends, focusing on nuisance violations in the south campus area, according to BPD spokesperson Officer Jennifer Coats.

Additionally, area coordinators from the department reach out to numerous student organizations, such as fraternities, to provide educational presentations on alcohol consumption and sexual assault.

Huang also expressed hope that Ghysels’ lawsuit will help bring light to cases of sexual assault at fraternities.

In 2013, 33 forcible sexual offenses were recorded on or around campus, including but not exclusively at fraternities, and at least nine sexual assaults were reported in the campus area in the first two months of the current school year, according to the 2014 UC Berkeley Annual Security Report.

If any citation is issued, according to Coats, area coordinators will follow up and work with the involved property owners and fraternities, which often receive a higher number of city code violations than other multiresident homes.

In 2005, the Advisory Council on Student-Neighbor Relations was created and aimed to implement changes in both the campus and the city, including the requirement that new students take a three-hour online alcohol education course.

The council met two times last year and will meet again in the fall 2015 semester, according to Ruben Lizardo, director of local and community government and community relations on campus.

“I think that an impact is already done through the programs we’ve instituted,” Saedi said.

In Huang’s opinion, however, BPD and the campus have been “hands off” in handling complaints. She said responses only come when an active complaint is made, calling the complaint process “complicated.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district covers half of the Piedmont area containing most fraternity houses, said the lawsuit is “unreasonable.”

The case is going through discovery, a pretrial process in which both parties obtain evidence. Ghysels is asking for, among other provisions, fraternities to cease the serving of alcohol to minors and the lowering of outside noise. A trial date will be set soon, according to Huang.

The city taking action

Despite actions already taken, existing tension between fraternities and Southside neighbors over the years has spurred the city to propose additional management plans.

Most recently, an agenda item aiming to extend certain regulations to group living accommodations — including fraternities and sororities — was presented by city manager Christine Daniel to Berkeley City Council on its Tuesday meeting agenda.

Some of the regulations discussed in the item currently extend only to mini-dorms — housing units that have six or more unrelated persons over the age of 18.

The measure was proposed in part to protect residents of group living accommodations, as well as help “reduce any potential detrimental impacts” of large gatherings, according to the agenda item.

If the measure were passed, the city would amend municipal codes, placing more rigid control on Greek houses. Gatherings of 10 or more people would end by 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and by midnight Friday and Saturday. Additionally, gatherings would be capped at 100 people.

The item, however, has been scheduled for further discussion in a work session planned for the fall.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who has worked in partnership with the campus IFC and Panhellenic Council, said the proposal is “punitive” and “arguably illegal,” saying that it breaches the constitutional right to assemble.

Stewart and Saedi also met with the city attorney to address their concerns with the amendment, especially regarding what they described as its ambiguous language. Saedi said the city is considering amending parts of the item in the coming months.

“Let’s have a conversation and work with the Greek community to address bigger issues,” Arreguin said.

Ghysels said that the council item could potentially “save lives” but that enforcement of any laws, existing or new, would be the key to success.

Though now retired, Ghysels had previously worked as a firefighter, trauma nurse and paramedic. According to Ghysels, he had previously tended to intoxicated students who had been wheeled out on gurneys from fraternities, a phenomenon he hopes to see come to an end.

But Ghysels’ main hope is to move back to the home that has been in his family for years. Looking to the future, Ghysels refers to the two generations of residents who have occupied the house on Durant Avenue.

“We had to temporarily move out (out of the house),” Ghysels said. “But we’re hoping to move back.”

Adrienne Shih is the lead city reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @adrienneshih.