AUGUSTA — City officials armed with a search warrant inspected three buildings owned by landlord Jim Pepin on Tuesday.
Officials said they did not find any code violations so severe that any of the Washington Street buildings would be closed down or that tenants would be forced to vacate.
The court order was sought by the city after Pepin refused to allow Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton into some of his buildings to inspect them.
Pepin, who is the city’s largest landlord, was cooperative with the inspectors. He said he never objected to his buildings being inspected, but did object to the city’s approach and proposed scope of inspections.
Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton said officials discovered some code violations, as anticipated, such as undersized windows and a dearth of secondary upper-floor exits in some of the buildings, but nothing that makes the buildings so unsafe that tenants had to be displaced.
The city officials went through buildings at 9, 31 and 37 Washington St., where they found code violations, including some windows smaller than codes allow and only one exit, not the required two, on an upper floor, and missing smoke detectors. The inspections were attended by Overton; Deputy Fire Chief David Groder and Tim Fuller, an inspector from the state Fire Marshal’s Office; Pepin, for a time; and later, Pepin’s property manager and maintenance workers.
“Overall the building is in good condition and there is nothing to lead me to shut it down,” Overton said about 37 Washington St. “The property owner and manager have been very cooperative today.”
Pepin said later Tuesday he agreed the inspections went well. “We seem to be off to a good start and everyone is friendly and on the same page,” he said.
“I absolutely intend on repairing and fixing any code issues,” Pepin added. “We all want safe buildings, and that part has never been in dispute. I did expect them to pass, but also realize that these buildings need updating in regards to life safety issues. Most apartment buildings in Augusta are well up in age and fall into that category.”
Last week a District Court judge approved the city’s request for an administrative search warrant to inspect units at 9, 31, 37, 41, 69 and 80 Washington St., as well as 2 and 4 Stewart Lane. Together, those buildings have 41 units. All of the buildings the city plans to inspect are in the Sand Hill section of the city.
The city had its attorney, Stephen Langsdorf, seek the warrant to get access to Pepin’s buildings after he refused to allow city fire and code officials inside to inspect them.
Overton said all of the apartments had at least one smoke detector, but in many cases, because of a rule adopted a few years ago, more than one detector is required in some apartments. He said a number of rooms were missing required smoke detectors.
Overton said the property manager indicated the smoke detector issues would be corrected within 24 hours.
He said Pepin also agreed to address other code issues in the buildings, but Overton noted some of them, such as installing more exits from upper floors, will take time.
“The next step is to send the owner a list of deficiencies,” Overton said. “With larger repairs, such as adding second exits from second and third floors, I’ll ask them how they’re going to fix it and how much time it will take. As long as it’s even remotely reasonable, we work with them as best we can.”
Overton said the problem of two few upper-floor exits is common in the city’s housing stock.
Pepin, a resident of Bunny Street in north Augusta, said he has eight full-time maintenance employees who work continually to make repairs and keep his buildings in good condition.
Through his lawyer, C.H. Spurling, Pepin has indicated to city officials that he did not want Overton to conduct the inspections and he wanted them limited to areas where the city had identified probable cause that violations existed. However, the court ruled last week that the city could have Overton inspect the buildings, and the scope would not be limited only to known issues.
Overton said the Fire Marshal’s Office inspector attended to provide additional code expertise.
Groder said officials had “the full cooperation of tenants” in building units where the tenants were home during the inspections.
Pepin owns 37 buildings, according to city assessing records. That’s more buildings than any other residential landlord in Augusta, according to Matt Nazar, city development director.
Suspected code violations listed in court documents filed by the city to get the search warrant included a lack of adequate exits from upper floors.
At a March 21 fire at a Pepin-owned building at 146 Northern Ave., firefighters were briefly trapped on the second floor because there was only one way out – the building’s exterior porches and the stairs connecting them – and it was on fire. Firefighters were able to get back down off the second floor after they put out the fire on the stairs, according to Fire Chief Roger Audette. The building has since been demolished.
The city has shut down 10 apartment buildings, and a floor of an 11th, for safety code violations this year. One of the buildings, 6 York St., is owned by Pepin.
Overton said the three buildings inspected Tuesday had 17 units, all but two or three of which were occupied.
Overton said if a unit in a building with code violations identified during an inspection becomes vacant, the city will require that unit to remain unoccupied until the code violations are fixed. He said the city does that with all buildings.
“We found what we expected to find,” Overton said. “Issues mainly due to the age of the buildings.”
The next round of inspections of more of Pepin’s apartments hasn’t yet been scheduled but likely will occur early next month, according to Overton.
The city requested 45 days to inspect the eight buildings, but the court gave it only 21 days.
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: