Welcome to San Luis Obispo.
SLO. San Luis. SLO Town. San Louie Obispo.
It’s the Happiest Place in America, said some guy who wrote a book about it, which eventually ended up being featured on Oprah.
Yep, the only other place that carries a better trump card is Disneyland.
SLO is also a very charming town, a great place to raise a family, and home to a college that excels in the agricultural and industrial arts. There are many varied ways to describe this place. And now it’s your temporary—possibly permanent because many people who come here never leave—home. You’re now part of the student-aged population that’s in a perennial love-hate relationship with the city’s long-time residents.
In a nutshell, it’s complicated. So complicated that we stopped keeping track of whether the two of you are broken up, back together, “talking,” hooking up, or pretending that the other doesn’t even exist when you’re sitting three bar stools away.
In reality, those details don’t matter right now. What matters right now is that there are rules (laws) that may or may not be specific to SLO that you should probably know about. These laws dictate things that you might find yourself involved with. Parents—we’re not talking to your children, of course.
First, just to get these out of the way, there’s the obvious no-nos—don’t drink and drive, don’t drink and bike, don’t be drunk in public, don’t give alcohol to minors, don’t host a party where minors are drinking, don’t do drugs, don’t be a menace while drinking juice in the hood, etc. Other no-nos that aren’t laws, but are good to know, include: don’t take drinks from strangers, don’t leave your drink unattended, and do use the buddy system.
Yes, we know, you’ve heard all this before, and you’ve probably broken several of these rules. We just thought those should be mentioned.
There are a few things that aren’t common knowledge or aren’t very obvious, and some guidelines specific to SLO that may be good to know.
First, a quick disclaimer: We aren’t attorneys. What you’re reading here are just a few things worth a mention. We’ve been there before, so we thought we’d pass this along in hopes of steering you away from that potential fine and to save the police one less thing to waste their precious time with while they’re on the taxpayer’s dime. New Times is in no way responsible for your terrible decisions and your half-baked schemes to fight The Man.
Also, Cal Poly and Cuesta have their own set of rules for on- and off-campus behavior. Those aren’t included here, as you’ve probably already heard those during orientation.
One more thing: When you turn 21, please, please, please leave the cutesy cardboard sign at home. Everyone at the bars can already tell it’s your birthday. And no, it’s not the nine way-too-sober friends who are following you around the bar and taking pictures of you drinking all those awful shots.
Welcome to the center of an ongoing tug-of-war.
Numerous laws have been passed in response to or in order to control student behavior. Most of these focus on parties.
- FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- TOO MUCH FUN: A reveler is taken into custody by the San Luis Obispo Police Department on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day after allegedly throwing a water bottle. It was also his 21st birthday. Well-known party holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and Mardi Gras see a heavy police presence in San Luis Obispo, which becomes a “double fine zone” during those times.
Say what you will, these laws exist for one reason or another. Some may blame students and their inability to control themselves or respect their neighbors; some may blame that little old lady who spies on you from her kitchen window and has the police on speed dial; and others may point to a complex analysis of the relationship between “The State” and property in a capitalist society.
The bottom line, however, is the more disruptive you are, the better you’ll get to know the police.
Remember, kids, you’re the new people to town. Those neighbors of yours may have been living there since before you were in diapers. Or they may be friends with a City Council member. Or maybe they’ll come over and have a beer with you. Who knows, but it may be wise to open up lines of communication with a simple introduction and some common courtesy.
That’s the sensitive nerve beneath most relationship sagas that continue on in this city—how students interact with their neighbors. So when New Times asked San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) Capt. Chris Staley what message he’d like to deliver to the city’s newest residents, he went straight to the neighborly welcome message.
“We just absolutely want to make sure that we welcome both the Cal Poly and Cuesta students to the community, and [for them to] remember that they are part of that community and to be respectful to their neighbors,” Staley said.
So, here are a few things you should know.
Like most places, San Luis Obispo has a noise ordinance. Traditionally, the noise ordinance is the method which law enforcement uses to regulate parties and rambunctious gatherings. In SLO, if the police are called to a party—or come across an obvious party—they’ll usually issue a warning. If they must return, they’ll issue a noise violation.
The law’s pretty simple—noise can’t carry 50 feet from where it’s generated, and noise may not cross the property line from its point of origin between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The fine for a noise violation is $350 for the first, $700 for the second within a 12-month period, and $1,000 for a third and any subsequent violations in that period.
Houses or apartments that are traditionally repeat offenders will sometimes get flagged, which means you might get a noise violation the first time the police are called.
To add insult to injury, several of our esteemed neighborhood property management companies have noise violation stipulations in the lease. READ THE LEASE BEFORE SIGNING. These added stipulations might include an additional fine from the rental company or a sort of three-strikes law that might become grounds for eviction.
The noise ordinance is pretty standard anywhere you go nowadays. SLO Town, however, has evolved further in its policing options. There are some newer laws on the books that have been instituted after some pretty raucous episodes of parties-gone-wild gave cause for the city to increase the size of its tool box:
• Double fine zones! During peak party times, the city will institute what’s called “Safety Enhancement Zones.” These zones include downtown and traditional party zones and can mean that those cited or fined for breaking the law may see double fines (up to $1,000).
• Mardi Gras moratorium: During Mardi Gras, the Safety Enhancement Zones are in effect starting 12:01 a.m. on the Thursday preceding Fat Tuesday until 7 a.m. on the following Wednesday.
• St. Patrick’s Day prohibition: The Safety Enhancement Zones go into effect at midnight before March 17, and end at 8 a.m. on March 18.
• Halloween hang-up: The weekend of Halloween becomes one giant Safety Enhancement Zone, which begins at midnight before Oct. 31 until 7 a.m. Nov. 1, unless, of course, Halloween falls on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. In that case, the zone extends from 12:01 a.m. that Thursday until 7 a.m. the following Monday.
- FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- SEE GREEN: San Luis Obispo has been a well-known place to party during holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and Mardi Gras. Be careful, though, because recent years have seen a beefed up police presence and the possibility to enhance penalties for those who break the law.
That’s not enough to get you down? We introduce you to the Unruly Gathering Ordinance. Created in 2010 and modified in 2015, the unruly gathering ordinance gives police officers tools to reign in and punish those responsible for a party that gets way out of control. Meant to be a deterrent for those who may try to incite mayhem, the ordinance gives grounds to slap penalties on those hosting a party, their landlords, and members of the crowd that are deemed particularly, well, unruly.
The ordinance defines an unruly gathering like so: “a gathering of 20 or more persons on private property that results in conduct that causes a substantial disturbance of the quiet enjoyment of private and public property in a significant segment of a neighborhood, including but not limited to conduct that results in excessive noise as defined [by the noise ordinance], obstruction of public streets or rights-of-way by people or vehicles, public drunkenness, unlawful possession of alcohol or drugs, serving alcohol to minors, fights, disturbances of the peace, urinating or defecating in public, setting off fireworks, vandalism, and littering on public property or private property not belonging to the host of the gathering.”
The initial violation brings $700, and any subsequent violation within a 12-month period will bring a $1,000 fine. In addition, property owners could be assessed a penalty of $500 and subject to “administrative action and penalties” if violations of this sort continue.
While some of this may sound a bit heavy handed, don’t worry just yet. So far, only about a dozen unruly gathering citations have been issued during the life of the ordinance. The police save this option for situations where things have truly gone beyond just a normal house party.
“It’s really designed to deal with larger gatherings when it’s creating a substantial disturbance in the neighborhood,” Staley said.
The city did amend the ordinance in July, which may make the law less cumbersome and more enforceable than it has been. But still, SLOPD generally likes to stick to noise violations.
Odds and ends
Like any other city that likes to ban things in the name of keeping their charm, there are a few no-nos that you may not know about until, well, you’re told not to:
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- PLUG IT IN, PLUG IT IN!: Of the lesser-known ordinances on the books at San Luis Obispo City Hall is a law that prohibits the use of gas-powered leaf blowers on Sundays. That’s right, the only way you can legally blow leaves around your yard on the Lord’s day is if you’re using an electric blower.
• Just blow! You can’t use a gas-powered leaf blower on a Sunday. At all. You may use an electric leaf blower on Sundays, however, but everyone knows that electric leaf blowers are just dumb. Eager to clean up those leaves this fall? Well, you can wish your neighbors a Happy Monday Morning by firing up that sucker at 7:01 a.m. on Monday, because that’s perfectly fine.
• Quack! Feeding the ducks is also banned. The SLO City Council added that to the list at the same time they banned smoking in city parks.
• You’ll shoot your eye out! As per the city’s Weapons section of its Public Peace, Morals, and Welfare Code, the use of all life threatening weapons is prohibited within the city. That includes the obvious ones—guns, knives over 3 inches long, and bludgeoning devices. It also includes what may be considered the more recreational of items in that category: BB guns and airsoft guns. Neither of those may be discharged within the city. Paintball guns can’t be used either. But that’s OK—you can still play with your Super Soaker … that is until the drought police hit you because you’re being a terrible Californian. Guess you’re gonna have to stick with the Nerf gun.
• No camping! Specifically: The city prohibits overnight camping in vehicles. You may see one of the big giant signs posted around city entrances that say so, making it clear that you aren’t to sleep in your vehicles between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This ban includes both temporary vehicle camping on public property and the permanent use of a vehicle as a dwelling unit on private property. This ban could include sleeping in your car somewhere near downtown after a night at the bars. Yep, that’s right, doing the responsible thing, in this case, is forbidden. Well, at least on the books. This is one of the laws where the SLOPD uses discretion before enforcing. But, being caught passed out drunk in your car can still get you in a whole heap of trouble—so if you must do so, please don’t sit or sleep in the driver’s seat, and keep those keys out of the ignition. And, beware of that 2 a.m. drunk logic that is going to try to tell you “you’re OK to drive.”
Drugs, synthetic drugs, and herbal medicine
This topic is a giant rabbit hole … and no matter what we tell you, you’ll probably end up following that white rabbit sooner or later. But, just in case you’re listening:
- FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- IT’S MEDICINAL, MAN!: Medical marijuana has a long and sordid history in San Luis Obispo County. Cities have banned the brick-and-mortar, store-front dispensaries, leaving only one other choice to procure that medicine—mobile medical marijuana dispensaries. San Luis Obispo tried to ban those, too, but it didn’t work. A brick-and-mortar dispensary proposed for Nipomo will go before the SLO County Board of Supervisors in October.
• Synthetic drugs are banned. The SLO City Council passed a ban on the sale and possession of spice, bath salts, etc. on Sept. 1. But don’t worry, ’cause that shit’s nasty anyway, and we don’t need a bunch of 18-year-olds running around California Boulevard wailing, doing crazy things, and trying to eat someone’s face off. Take it easy. Joints can’t kill you; that other stuff just might.
SLO County has a complicated relationship with medical marijuana. More specifically, lawmakers and law enforcement officers have a particular relationship with those who grow and distribute medicinal cannabis. Google “Doobie Dozen” or “Charles Lynch” to get started. Things have subsided a bit, as the county continues its tradition of being late to the party of social reform and cultural evolution. If the state of California says “don’t worry about it,” well, it may take about five years for those in charge around here to get the message. That explains all the carrier pigeons.
All that said, you might notice that there are no brick-and-mortar medical marijuana dispensaries to be found in this great county. And you thought we were so freakin’ liberal here. Every city has banned dispensaries, and the county Board of Supervisors has held a sort of de facto ban on permitting dispensaries in all unincorporated areas. Three have been proposed, and all have been shot down. That can change, however. The Ethnobotanica collective has proposed a dispensary in Nipomo. The Planning Commission approved it in July, but their would-be neighbors appealed. Now the decision will go to the supervisors this fall. Eyes will be watching.
If you’re among the thousands of patients in this county who legitimately depend on the therapeutic state-sanctioned use of medical cannabis, then don’t panic, yet. Mobile medical marijuana dispensaries have picked up the slack. And we hear that there are some very good ones around, with very good products. Cough, cough, just look in the back of, cough, New Times, cough, for a menu of, cough, providers, cough, cough.
Mobile dispensaries have been banned in Arroyo Grande and Atascadero. The SLO and Paso Robles city councils tried to ban mobile dispensaries, but they were sent home packing after a long line of diverse and well-spoken residents told the council why they depended on the medicine and how they’d have trouble getting it if the city banned deliveries. Think mothers, retired firefighters, the elderly, the terminally ill, young people in wheel chairs, and epileptics. Quite the sight. Pismo Beach tried to ban the dispensaries as well, though it couldn’t quite muster up the courage either.
If you have a green thumb, a medical card, a backyard, and neighbors, then this part may apply to you. The city has an ordinance that bans offensive odors. It actually originated in 2014 when a neighbor went to the city and complained that some maturing marijuana plants growing on the other side of the fence smelled way too strong. The person growing those plants knew what they were doing, apparently.
Jono Kinkade is a New Times staff writer. Reach him at [email protected].
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay