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Newsletter > March 2018 > "Losing University Recognition Could Mean Losing Your House"
Losing University Recognition Could Mean Losing Your House
Tim Lynch, Manley Burke
When a university strips a fraternity of its recognition status and right to be on campus, problems for the fraternity do not always end there. The fraternity’s house can also be shut down by the municipality. This is because an increasing number of municipalities are looking to local universities to determine which groups should get a house.
Fraternal Law Partners researched this issue and conducted a zoning survey of over 50 select universities and their local zoning codes. From the Big Ten to the Pac 12, we found that approximately 59% of our selected municipalities have defined “fraternity/sorority” in a way that requires university recognition. The language in the zoning codes requiring university recognition are not identical but have striking similarities.
Take the City of Oxford, Ohio as an example. Oxford is home to Miami University of Ohio (“Miami University”). The text of Oxford’s zoning code defines “Fraternity/Sorority House” as follows:
FRATERNITY/SORORITY HOUSE – A building that is occupied by a group of enrolled Miami University students who are active members of a fraternal organization recognized by Miami University. These organizations shall be limited to fraternities, sororities, and like groups approved by Miami University for communal off-campus living on that site. . . .
Codified Ordinances of the City of Oxford, Ohio, Section 1159.07(10). (emphasis added). Under Oxford’s definition, a fraternity must be officially recognized by Miami University if it wishes to operate as a fraternity house as a permitted use in Oxford. The language here is broad enough that it completely defers the task of defining a fraternity/sorority house to Miami University. Miami University is thus able to create whatever recognition procedures it sees fit to control which fraternities and sororities may operate a house as a permitted use in the City of Oxford. In cases such as this, a fraternity will be unable to operate any building for student residential purposes in the City of Oxford without first obtaining the University’s official recognition status.
Zoning codes adopting fraternity definitions requiring university recognition is trending. An increasing number of municipalities are deferring to their local universities to determine whether fraternities owning private property have any rights to use that property as a fraternity house. Municipal governments are now passing the buck to universities. As a result, we have seen a significant number of municipalities incorporating the phrase “university recognition” into their definitions.
By delegating this power of regulating fraternities to universities, municipalities have given a substantial amount of power to their local university. Procedurally, when a fraternity is punished and stripped of their recognition status, they will now not only lose their ability to operate on campus, but they also lose their right to live in, socialize, conduct meetings or otherwise use their house because of a municipality’s university recognition requirement.
A fraternity house that is used by a fraternity not officially recognized by the local university will, in Oxford and similar areas, be an illegal use of the property. Without a permitted use, the fraternity house can be closed by the municipality and the fraternity members will not be permitted to occupy or otherwise use their house even if they have an otherwise valid lease. As a result, fraternities are either renting their house to other Greek organizations or looking for meaningful alternatives to make use of the property while still complying with their local zoning ordinance.1
This is a hot button issue in the Borough of State College, Pennsylvania. In State College, if a group of fraternity members wishes to establish a fraternity house, Penn State can quite literally keep you from getting your foot inside the door. Without university recognition status, a fraternity house can also be shut down and student members forced to seek alternative housing.
During the Fall of 2017 at Penn State, the Alpha Upsilon Chapter of the Fraternity of Beta Theta Phi challenged the authority of the Borough of State College by renting their rooms out to alumni visiting campus to attend football games.2 Since Beta Thea Pi did not acquire a permit or establish a change in use, the Borough called this an illegal new use of the property. The fraternity said this was not a new use, but merely a “tradition” of welcoming alumni back for tailgating events.3 Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Katherine Oliver has suggested that she would order the fraternity to “comply with the law” and cease their rental activity but has yet to issue such an order.4
No organization has yet to challenge any municipality for its delegation of zoning authority to a university. Fraternal Law Partners will continue to monitor this issue. In the meantime, fraternities and sororities should make themselves aware of their local zoning codes and determine what may happen to their houses if their organization finds itself without university recognition status.
1 Codified Ordinances of the City of Oxford, Ohio, Section 1159.07(10); http://miamistudent.net/beta-rents-out-house-to-other-frat/
4 Id. see also Abbey v. The Alpha Upsilon Chapter of the Fraternity of Beta Theta Pi, Inc., Docket No. 2017-0838, (C.P. Centre County 2017).