March 12, 2010

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By DAVID HENCH Staff Writer

— By DAVID HENCH

click image to enlarge

STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN EWING -- Tuesday, June 29, 1999 -- Portland landlord Joe Soley speaks to reporters following the judgement in a lawsuit against him filed by tenents of one of his buildings.

Staff Writer

A judge could rule today on whether Joseph Soley will have to pay moving costs for all of his tenants at 10 Exchange St., who must be out before Monday because the city says the building does not meet safety codes.

Lawyers for Soley and for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which sued him on behalf of two of his building's tenants, are scheduled to report back to the judge this afternoon on settlement discussions.

Portland's city attorney, Gary Wood, who participated in an emergency hearing in Portland District Court Thursday, said there is no chance that the residents can remain in the building -- even if Soley agrees to schedule the complex safety improvements the city says it needs.

''A lot of us were having trouble going home at night, worried about a fire breaking out,'' said Wood. ''The only way to make sure they're safe is they've got to get out of that building.''

Soley's legal and building design team apparently agree. After meeting with Portland fire officials Thursday, they conceded that the third and fourth floors are not safe to live in, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. A representative for Soley could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

The city has said it will seek a court order Monday compelling any remaining residents to leave because of inadequate sprinkler and fire alarm systems.

Meanwhile, the businesses that rent space in the building, in the heart of the city's Old Port district, have asked the city to hold off on evicting them so that the more modest safety improvements needed for the commercial areas of the building can be made.

Portland's Downtown District has asked the city to let the businesses operate for 45 days after their deadline to be out of the building, while a plan is developed to repair the building's deficiencies.

Engineers working for Soley have been going through the building this week to develop a plan for necessary work so that the fire alarm, sprinkler and other systems meet National Fire Protection Association requirements.

''We're working on it. We do want to get it all solved,'' said Sidney St. F. Thaxter, a lawyer for Soley who participated in Thursday's hearing. ''We're optimistic something good will happen,'' he said, though he would not elaborate.

The city first notified Soley that the building did not meet standards in October 2007.

It has been trying to get him to do the necessary work since then.

Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne said that Soley agreed to do the work but did not follow through. Soley has a long history of legal disputes with the city over the maintenance of his properties,

On Dec. 22, the city notified tenants of 10 Exchange St., residential and commercial, that it planned to classify the building as unsafe and unusable.

On Monday, the city put notices to residents under doors and placed stickers throughout the building saying they had to move out or they could be evicted at the start of next week.

Businesses were told they could have an extra week before they had to move because the fire code violations were not as severe in that area of the sprawling building, which is also known as 7 Fox Court.

Janis Beitzer, executive director of Portland's Downtown District, wrote to the city asking for time to address the systems in the commercial area of the building.

''The negative economic impact to the Old Port of these businesses being shuttered goes far beyond the over 100 jobs that will be lost,'' she wrote. ''This block is the heart and the driver for the enormous tourist trade that brings millions of dollars into the Greater Portland area each year.''

This is the first time since 2002 that the city has resorted to eviction notices to settle a dispute over code violations in a residential building, Clegg said.

Two residents sought help from Pine Tree legal Assistance, which sued Soley on Thursday.

The lawsuit, on behalf of Jessica Parker and Jason Austin, identified the fire and safety issues described by the city, as well as an inoperable thermostat and toilet, holes in a wall and window, and a rodent infestation that persisted for months without being addressed by the landlord.

The lawsuit seeks to penalize the building owner $100 per day for each day the apartment is uninhabitable. The two had been paying $600 per month for their apartment, plus utilities, since April.

Parker, a student at Southern Maine Community College, paid December and January rent with her credit card and says her credit cards are now at their limit, according to the lawsuit.

Since they already paid their January rent, without assistance from Soley they will become homeless on Monday, said Katherine McGovern, their lawyer with Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

Soley cannot make the necessary safety improvements before Monday's deadline, so the tenants are seeking to have Soley be responsible for providing safe housing, either in the form of another apartment or by providing first and last month's rent so they can rent another unit, McGovern said.

She said the tenants would have to be sure that any other apartment Soley provides is safe and in good repair.

McGovern also says Soley should pay relocation expenses, which might involve renting moving vehicles and related expenses, she said.

Neither McGovern nor Wood would comment on what Soley's lawyers said during Thursday's hearing, held behind closed doors in judge's chambers. But they did say that Judge Peter Goranites wants to see a comprehensive solution to the problems faced by the buildings' tenants.

''I think there's a recognition it's reasonable that people not get kicked out when they pay their rent,'' McGovern said.

Soley's lawyers did agree to provide a list of the building's renters, Wood said.

Goranites said he wants the two sides back at 2 p.m. today to report on what progress they have made in reaching a settlement.

If Soley has to pay to move the dozens of renters into new apartments, it could easily cost thousands of dollars.

But McGovern said that would be much less expensive than if they are evicted and then sue Soley for damages.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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