BIDDEFORD — The city has launched an ambitious program to conduct safety inspections of apartment buildings, an effort prompted by two apartment fires that killed a total of eight young adults in southern Maine.

The inspection program by the building codes department will focus in the next year on multi-unit buildings on Main Street, then expand over the next couple of years to include all of the roughly 650 apartment buildings in the city.

Last week, the City Council voted to add $70,000 to the city budget to hire an extra inspector for one year.

The proactive, systematic approach to inspections is a change for the codes office, which in the past conducted inspections only in response to complaints, said Roby Fecteau, director of codes enforcement. His office has inspected six downtown buildings so far, with plans to step up the pace once a new inspector is hired.

“The fires in Portland and Biddeford where individuals died were a wake-up call to us,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “We want to make sure Biddeford is recognized for taking the safety of our residents seriously. This is a step in that direction.”

The Noyes Street fire in Portland on Nov. 1, 2014, killed six people and was the deadliest fire in the state in 40 years. It prompted fire officials across the state to consider ways to prevent apartment house fires and led Portland to step up safety inspections and oversight of the city’s 17,585 rental units.

The owner of the Noyes Street building, Gregory Nesbit, was charged with manslaughter after fire investigators concluded the house did not have functioning smoke alarms and that a rear staircase was blocked.

After the Noyes Street fire, the fire department in Skowhegan led an effort to do life safety and code inspections on apartment buildings there in collaboration with the code enforcement office.

‘PROACTIVE INSTEAD OF REACTIVE’

Shortly before the Noyes Street fire, two men died after an apartment fire on Main Street in Biddeford. Michael Moore, 23, and James Ford, 21, died of injuries suffered in the Sept. 18, 2014, fire, which trapped them in their third-floor apartment.

Fire investigators determined that there was no working smoke detector and that Moore and Ford could not get out of the building because the apartment did not have a second means of escape as required.

The families of Moore and Ford recently settled a lawsuit against Nielsen Clark, the building owner. Dylan Collins, the 20-year-old man who police say started the fire, has been charged with two counts of murder and two counts of arson.

“It really hits home when it happens in your own community,” Fecteau said. “That’s why the council and mayor want to see this be a successful program.”

Council President John McCurry said there was strong council support for the new program. To pay for the extra inspector, the council used money from a tax increment financing arrangement that directs funds to the downtown area.

“We want to be very proactive instead of reactive,” McCurry said. “There have been a lot of buildings that have been neglected. We shouldn’t have people in unsafe housing.”

Life safety inspector Scott Welton, left, and electrical inspector Roger Jalbert, center, members of Biddeford's Code Enforcement Office, check the building at 145 Main St. in Biddeford for code violations.

Life safety inspector Scott Welton, left, and electrical inspector Roger Jalbert, center, members of Biddeford’s Code Enforcement Office, check the building at 145 Main St. in Biddeford for code violations.

MINOR VIOLATIONS FOUND SO FAR

The codes office started the new program about two months ago with initial inspections on Main Street, where most buildings have commercial storefronts and apartments above them. City Manager Jim Bennett said inspectors now have a better sense of how long the inspections take and are fine-tuning the program as they prepare to go into more buildings. The city has about 650 apartment buildings.

Fecteau said his department received 460 complaints from across the city last year, including 318 involving apartment buildings.

“I heard it loud and clear from councilors that they wanted a more proactive approach,” Fecteau said. “They want to make sure property owners are addressing life safety issues.”

He said the half-dozen inspections done so far have uncovered some minor violations – including smoke detector batteries that needed to be replaced – but no major issues that would displace residents. The building owners have voluntarily complied with requests for inspections, and Fecteau said the city will be able to request administrative search warrants if property owners are not cooperative.

During inspections, three inspectors look at a variety of life-safety features, including smoke detectors, fire alarm systems, egresses and sprinkler systems. They also look for issues with the electrical system, extensive use of electrical cords and accumulated trash. If violations are found, the property owner is notified in writing and the codes office suggests a plan of action to get the issues fixed promptly.

“We want to make sure this is a successful program and work with the property owners as much as the code allows, provided we’re not putting anyone in a situation that creates imminent danger,” Fecteau said. “We want to make this a good experience for both the city and the property owner.”

Fecteau expects Main Street inspections to be complete by the end of the summer. Inspectors will then move on to the rest of the downtown, where there are about 3,000 units in 560 buildings. Fecteau said buildings will be prioritized based on age, with the focus on inspecting buildings built from 1900 to 1978 first. Those buildings were constructed before modern safety codes were developed.

“These are old units,” he said. “When the mills were vibrant, the workers lived in these units.”

LANDLORDS SUPPORT INSPECTIONS

David Flood, an owner of the three-story building at 265 Main St., said the property was inspected last week. The building – a former furniture store built in 1870 that was renovated five years ago to house a coffee shop, offices and four apartments – had no major violations, he said. The minor issues, including a backup battery in a smoke detector that needed replacing, have been fixed, he said.

“When the renovations were done, we were very careful to follow codes and make sure we did everything safe,” he said, while noting that he supports the inspections.

Seth Harkness, who owns seven buildings in the city and headed the Biddeford Landlords Association, said word of the new program is just starting to spread among landlords in the city. He said the inspections are necessary and overdue, but he would like to see the program implemented in a way that allows property owners to bring their buildings up to code.

“Codes are confusing and there are a lot of layers to it,” he said. “I’m hoping this can be something where the city and landlords can work together to make sure we have safe housing and we don’t see another one of those terrible tragedies.”

 


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