Party halls under review

Published 11:12 pm Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In the wake of a murder that took place after a fight at a party in a Ruritan hall, Suffolk officials are gearing up for inspections of public rental facilities in the city.

Leaders from the city’s police, fire and community development departments, as well as the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, met with about 50 building owners and managers Tuesday night to reiterate the laws that govern facilities that are available for public rental, which typically include community organizations that rent their buildings when not in use by the clubs, special events halls and hotels.

“We’re not trying to be the big bad wolf,” said Sgt. Steve Patterson of the Suffolk Police Department. “These are civic organizations trying to help the community. We don’t want you to stop having events; we want you to have a safe event.”

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On Aug. 1, a Suffolk teenager was shot and killed after leaving a party at a rented Ruritan clubhouse. Police say he had been involved in a fight with the suspect, who also attended the party.

That incident was not, however, the first time trouble at a rented hall had turned violent, city spokeswoman Debbie George said.

Tuesday’s meeting actually had been planned before the murder of TyQuan Lewis at the beginning of the month, George said. It had been organized, she explained, “in response to ongoing issues, including prior events which have resulted in large fights, assaults and violations of the law, including noise and alcohol violations.”

“That’s what we’re trying to prevent,” said Patterson, in reference to the homicide. “We’ve been dealing with this problem in Suffolk at least four to five years.”

The meeting covered topics such as dance hall permits, the noise ordinance, disorderly conduct, maximum occupancy regulations, alcohol-related laws and more.

According to Patterson, out-of-control parties frequently become a problem for police. In addition to noise violations, fights often occur off the premises after the party, and drivers leaving the party drunk also present a problem.

Much of the meeting focused on the fine line between the liability of the building owners and the liability of the event organizers when parties get out of control.

Tim Davis, assistant director of community development, passed out a questionnaire for each organization and asked for an inspection of each facility. He said the survey and inspection would help the city determine what types of events and gatherings are permitted at each facility.

“It’s evident by so many people being here that you’re all interested in making sure your building is safe,” Davis said. “This gives me an indication of how devoted the people of Suffolk are to public safety.”

Several representatives of the Magnolia Ruritan Club were among those who attended the meeting.

“We’ve had some trouble at our facility,” said Harrell Jory, a member of the club. “We’ve been trying to get our arms around how to prevent it from happening.”

Jory said the fees from renting the club’s building to others help the Ruritans cover their expenses and give money back to the community.

“We want to keep ourselves clean,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”