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Editorial: Targeting an illegal bar

The extended police campaign to help improve life in neighborhoods near the University of Massachusetts Amherst pulled up at one particular address last week: 11 Phillips St. Eight officers spent hours executing a search warrant at the rented single-family home. A day later, police said they expect to bring charges against the home’s tenants.

The specifics sound dry and legal, but the alleged offenses boil down to being criminally bad neighbors and running an unlicensed bar.

This one case, the result of a sustained police investigation and crackdown, won’t alone change the balance of power that remains tipped against year-round residents trying to live their lives in a party zone.

But the possible penalties are real. And case by case, prosecutions like these may help discourage the unlawful and unseemly behavior that keeps residents up late at night in this neighborhood just south of the UMass campus.

The case also sends a message to landlords that they will be held responsible for the state of their properties and the behavior of their tenants.

Amherst police say they put this address on their watch list after visiting it last March, when officers made arrests. Last week, police determined that 14 people are living in the house. In Amherst, a single-family dwelling cannot house more than four unrelated people. Officials may declare the property, which is suspected to be an underground fraternity, an unlicensed rooming house.

If so, it’s also a pretty wet one.

Police who searched the property found evidence that it housed a bar in the basement, including beer kegs, cups and even a tip jar. Police say they seized cash that is suspected to be proceeds from admission charges — payments that appear to make the house a bar rather than the scene of a party.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to bring charges for running a bar. And so police are pinpointing alternate charges. Among them are keeping a disorderly house and violating the town’s nuisance house and keg bylaws. Two years ago, Amherst police summoned three UMass students to court on charges of illegal sales of alcoholic beverages in a different house on Phillips Street. In that case, police said as many as 200 partygoers were being charged $5 admission.

It may feel like a party to patrons, but when you charge to attend you are charging for alcohol. Packing dozens or hundreds of people into spaces not designed to accommodate them is not only illegal, it’s stupid and hazardous.

The Phillips Street house is owned by Knight Properties LLC, a company managed by Stephan Gharabegian of Lexington. Alcohol issues aside, fire and building inspectors have handled code violations there, officials say. The town’s building commissioner will decide whether the residents can remain.

Lt. Ronald Young said the house has been a problem in the neighborhood. By bringing its residents to account, the department is helping relieve neighbors of late-night crowds on their streets, trash and vandalism. With this problem, it’s one step, and one house, at a time.

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