November 21, 2013

Augusta landlord refuses to allow city inspections

Jim Pepin, the city’s largest landlord, says the city needs to inspect for specific code violations, not just when it suspects there may be a problem.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Unsafe: This March 22, 2013 file photo shows 146 Northern Avenue in Augusta the morning after it was heavily damaged by a fire. City officials say firefighters were briefly trapped inside the building while fighting the fire, which is one reason why they want permission to inspect Pepin’s properties. The building has since been demolished.

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Stephen Langsdorf

File Photo

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Spurling said the city’s own ordinances specify it is the fire chief who is designated to inspect buildings for fire safety issues, not the code enforcement officer. But he said the city has refused to cooperate with Pepin by having anyone other than Overton inspect his buildings.

Spurling said he personally has no idea whether Pepin’s apartments are safe.

“That’s not the issue, it’s whether or not the city has the authority to search a building without sanctions from the court,” Spurling said. “You have a right to have your property free from government searches without a warrant. Mr. Pepin’s property is as protected as yours. It’s not being a bad person. It’s standing up for your own rights.”

Dobson didn’t rule on the city’s request for search warrants, instead delaying action on the court hearing begun Oct. 30 and issuing an order directing the two sides to seek an agreement and schedule inspections. If they don’t reach agreement by Thursday, the city can ask Dobson to make a determination on the request for search warrants.

Langsdorf said Dobson’s findings so far indicate the city will be able to inspect the buildings and Overton should be allowed to be the one doing the inspecting.

“We are going to inspect these buildings and are going to ensure they are safe for occupancy,” Bridgeo said. “God forbid, in the midst of this legal wrangling, a tragedy were to occur.”

Fire Chief Roger Audette said the city’s rescue workers respond to some 4,000 ambulance calls a year, many of which put them into the city’s apartment buildings where they may deal with code violations as they respond.

He noted a major fire safety concern for both firefighters and tenants is a secondary means of getting out of the upper floors of buildings.

And at a March 21 fire in one Pepin-owned building at 146 Northern Ave., firefighters were briefly trapped on the second floor because there was only one way to get in and out. The building’s exterior porches and stairs leading between them were on fire. He said the only other means of getting out was a wooden — and thus flammable — ladder nailed to the wall, which also caught on fire.

“The fire got so big behind (firefighters) on the second floor they had no means of escape,” Audette said. “The fire burned the porches off on both levels, and that was the only way in or out.”

Audette said firefighters were able to get out of 146 Northern Ave. after they put the fire out behind them enough to get back down off the second floor via the porches. The building has since been demolished.

The city has shut down 10 apartment buildings, and a floor of an eleventh, for safety code violations this year. Only one of the buildings, 6 York St., is owned by Pepin.

Nazar said the city is willing to give landlords time to fix code violations before taking action against them unless they are so severe they put the safety of tenants at risk.

On Thursday, city councilors are scheduled to vote on a proposed new ordinance that would require landlords to allow city inspections of apartments if they are rented to tenants who receive General Assistance housing funds. The court action against Pepin is unrelated to that ordinance, city officials said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647 kedwards@centralmaine.com

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JIm Pepin

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William Bridgeo

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