Monday, July 23 , 2018, 1:42 am | Fair 70º


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Enforcement Efforts Stamp Out Couch Burnings During ‘Move Out’ in Isla Vista

Daily patrols kick in during the annual exodus of thousands of college students from their rentals

Increased enforcement and public education have helped stop couch burnings in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County officials say. A living room couch outdoors on a patio is considered “solid waste,” and leaving it outside can result in a ticket.
Increased enforcement and public education have helped stop couch burnings in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County officials say. A living room couch outdoors on a patio is considered “solid waste,” and leaving it outside can result in a ticket. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

On the heels of UCSB commencement weekend, revelers set fire to a couch at 2:20 a.m. Monday in the 6200 block of Sabado Tarde Road in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County fire officials said.

It was the first such incident this year, dashing local hopes for a fire-free “Move Out,” the annual exodus of thousands of college students from their Isla Vista rentals.

“It’s part of growing up, learning to obey laws,” said Peter Neushul, a longtime Isla Vista homeowner and landlord. “But lighting up furniture is dangerous. My fear is that it will burn up a fence, the fence will burn to the house and the house will burn down. If you’re a fire starter, you’re a danger to society.”

Of 15,000 Isla Vista residents, nearly 13,000 are student renters, and June used to be couch-burning season on a much larger scale. During Move Out in 2000, county officials said, 150 couches were torched in what had become an alarming end-of-school tradition.

Last June, six couches were burned.

Consistent enforcement has dramatically brought down the numbers, officials said, but so have fines, letters to property owners, lease restrictions, door hangers on Isla Vista rentals and an increased police presence. It's also been helped by UCSB newsletters, posters, videos and Facebook campaigns such as “Learn. Don’t Burn.”

Convicted couch arsonists face stiff penalties: three years of probation, 100 hours of community service, suspension for one school quarter, and up to $2,900 in restitution fees for the County Fire, Sheriff’s and Public Works departments.

During this year’s Move Out, which began last Wednesday and will continue through June 26, bulk pickup trucks remove furniture at the curb daily.

Brad Spencer, a county code enforcement officer, visits the community every day patrolling for couches, La-Z-Boy chairs, ottomans, futons, mattresses and box springs in yards, on roofs or on balconies.

Brad Spencer, county code enforcement officer for Isla Vista, patrols for couch violations daily in Isla Vista during Move Out, the annual exodus of 13,000 college students from Isla Vista. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

“I can spot 'em in some weird places,” he said. “My job is to get rid of fuel. If the fuel’s not there, they don’t burn it.”

Last year, Spencer said, MarBorg Industries removed 1.1 million pounds of material from Isla Vista during the two weeks of Move Out. Instead of throwing things away, tenants can donate unwanted furniture and other belongings to the GIVE project sponsored by ​UCSB at Embarcadero Hall, 935 Embarcadero del Norte.

The annual GIVE sale will be held next Saturday and Sunday, June 20-21, this year.

Isla Vista is not the only American community that has struggled to stamp out couch burning. A Google search reveals that students living around Baylor, Michigan State, Pennsylvania State, Santa Clara University, West Virginia University, the University of Maryland and the University of Colorado-Boulder have resorted to couch burning in celebration or protest.

Spencer said that in 2000 he documented 800 large rectangular potholes in the asphalt on Isla Vista streets, marking the spots where burning couches had melted the asphalt in the past — not that it was any surprise to longtime residents, who had often had their tires punctured by couch springs.

“What kind of a town has so many couch burnings embedded in the asphalt that you can get a flat tire driving down Del Playa Drive and Sabado Tarde Road?” asked Neushul, who grew up in Isla Vista and has lived there for more than 30 years.

Santa Barbara County took an important step toward solving the problem in 2006, when the Public Works Department began classifying all upholstered furniture in Isla Vista as illegal “solid waste” if it showed up on a property outdoors.

Spencer began issuing warnings, telling property owners to move living room furniture and bedding back inside until bulk pickup day, which is once a week in Isla Vista, most of the year.

But violations didn’t drop to single digits until 2013, Spencer said, when he began giving $235 tickets to property owners after two warnings. Landlords started inserting clauses in their leases, banning the outdoor use of indoor furniture.

On a recent morning sweep through Isla Vista before the start of Move Out on June 10, Spencer spotted only two couches in yards and one mattress on a balcony. He took photos and made a note to warn the property owners to move them back inside, pronto. And he returned the next day to make sure the couches and bedding were gone.

Spencer enforces trash can rules, too. The containers must be covered, and they must be brought in from the street and placed out of public view within 12 hours of trash collection — an art that all Isla Vista renters must learn to master, or their landlords may face a $535 fine.

“It’s education that makes this work,” Spencer said. “The hardest part is, every year, you have seniors leaving, and in August, you have new people coming in.”

Neushul is grateful for the county’s help and optimistic that the trend will hold. 

“Couch burnings are part of the perception of lawlessness in Isla Vista,” he said. “It’s gone on a long time. But I think it’s on the wane.”

— Melinda Burns is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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