November 21, 2013

Augusta sues landlord over apartment inspections

Jim Pepin says the city can get court search warrants if code enforcement officers want to enter his properties.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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.

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2013 Kennebec Journal File Photo / Joe Phelan The apartment building at 146 Northern Ave. in Augusta is shown the the morning after it was heavily damaged by a fire in March. City officials say firefighters were briefly trapped inside the building while fighting the fire, which is one reason why they want permission to inspect the owner’s other properties. The building has since been demolished.

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Jim Pepin

Kennebec Journal File Photo

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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.

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