BIDDEFORD — The City Council on Tuesday approved a new ordinance that will give local code enforcement officials authority to penalize landlords and tenants who fail to deal with bedbug infestations.

The ordinance, modeled after existing state law, outlines landlord and tenant responsibilities related to bedbug control and allows the Code Enforcement Office to fine people who fail to cooperate with infestation treatments.

Roby Fecteau, director of code enforcement for the city, said he believes Biddeford is one of the first communities to adopt local bedbug regulations.

Fecteau said the local rule is needed as an increasing number of properties – mostly multi-unit apartment buildings – deal with bedbug infestations that are difficult and sometimes costly to control. This year, the city has fielded as many as 10 complaints per week about bedbugs, compared to rare reports previously.

“This will allow us the ability to impose penalties for people not complying with the current state law and our ordinance,” Fecteau said.

The City Council approved the new ordinance 8-1, with Councilor David Bourque opposed. Councilors did not discuss the issue and there were no public comments. The Policy Committee had unanimously recommended the ordinance be passed.

Though it may be one of the first locally, Biddeford is not alone in adopting a local ordinance to deal with bedbugs. Twenty-two states and a growing number of counties and municipalities now have regulations outlining the responsibility for landlords and tenants dealing with infestations.

Maine and Rhode Island are the only New England states with laws related to bedbugs.

Bedbugs – hard to kill insects that feed on the blood of humans and animals – appeared in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, disappeared for decades, then re-emerged 10 years ago.

Because bedbugs are not known to carry disease and are not considered a health threat, there is no central reporting agency that collects national statistics on the presence of the insect. Maine does not track reports of bedbugs.

Under Maine law – and now the Biddeford ordinance –- tenants are obligated to notify landlords of bedbugs, and landlords in turn are required to inspect for them within five days. Both tenants and landlords are required to cooperate in the eradication process.

Under state law, tenants can bring landlords to court, not the city. Fecteau said that makes it difficult for his office to make sure bedbug issues are being addressed. He said he has spoken with other code enforcement officers who share his frustration.

“You’ll see down the road that people will be leaning toward (local ordinances),” he said.

If a landlord or tenant fails to comply with the Biddeford ordinance, they can face fines up to $2,500.

Vicky Edgerly, health and welfare director for Biddeford, said her office receives four or five complaints about bedbugs a month from residents. Occasionally people seek legal help from Pine Tree Legal Assistance, but most find their landlords deal with the problem, she said.

“Most landlords don’t want an infestation,” Edgerly said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or:

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: @grahamgillian