AUGUSTA — The city is taking legal action against its largest landlord to get permission to inspect his apartment buildings following a March incident in which firefighters were briefly trapped on an upper floor as they tried to fight a serious blaze.
Stephen Langsdorf, the city’s attorney, said municipal staff have identified code violations at some Jim Pepin rental properties such as a lack of adequate exits from upper floors, and “we suspect those issues exist in his other buildings, as well, based on his practices.”
City Manager William Bridgeo and Langsdorf both said this is the first time the city has been forced to seek search warrants to gain access for apartment building inspections since they’ve worked for the city.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had to file a request for an administrative search warrant in my 15 years here, because the other landlords are being cooperative,” Langsdorf said.
Matt Nazar, director of development services, said there have been two “significant” structure fires in Pepin-owned buildings in the last three years and Pepin owns five of the 13 buildings identified by the fire department as the buildings that concern them most. He said Pepin and his attorney appear to be stonewalling in an effort to delay inspections of his buildings.
However, Pepin’s attorney said his client is willing to allow the city to inspect his buildings, but only for specific code violations for which there is probable cause. In addition, they do not want to allow Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton into any of the buildings.
Attorney C.H. Spurling said the city has no right to access Pepin’s buildings without search warrants.
“This is still America,” Spurling said Wednesday. “We’ve always said we’ll consent to searches, for those things for which you have probable cause. The city’s position is they will do anything they want, when they want.”
Spurling said the city is singling out his client unfairly and, in correspondence with Langsdorf obtained by the Kennebec Journal in a Freedom of Access Act request, said Pepin will not allow Overton into his buildings for inspections. Overton, one of two city code officers, has been the one dealing with Pepin’s properties recently.
“Mr. Pepin has significant concerns that are reasonable and valid given the past communications from the city’s code enforcement officer,” Spurling wrote to Langsdorf. “For example, he was informed in writing that each and every one of his buildings would be inspected (whether he consented or not) and that punitive action would be taken against him as a result. I see no basis for mutual trust and cooperation if that representative, his attitude, and his approach to his relationship with Mr. Pepin persists.”
Bridgeo said the city has expressed a desire to inspect all of Pepin’s 37 properties, most of them apartment buildings. He said the city acted on a suggestion from a State Fire Marshal’s Office investigator that enough code violations have been found at Pepin’s properties to indicate a pattern of violations exists, enough to justify inspecting all his buildings to ensure they meet safety codes. Bridgeo also noted there have been fires at two buildings owned by Pepin — at 3 Stewart Lane, and 146 Northern Ave. — over the last three years.
Bridgeo also defended Overton’s work, and said the city cannot allow building owners, or others doing business with the city, to dictate which city employees they deal with.
“Rob Overton has consistently demonstrated competence, fairness and trustworthiness,” Bridgeo said. “Mr. Pepin’s position is Rob Overton has a personal vendetta against him. I don’t see any evidence of that.”
Bridgeo said what the city is primarily seeking, from District Court Judge Beth Dobson, is access to inspect eight Pepin buildings identified in the city’s request for administrative search warrants. But he said the city will also likely seek broader authorization to inspect other buildings owned by Pepin to avoid having to return to court.
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 can be contacted at 621-5647 or at firstname.lastname@example.org