A Portland landlord is appealing a fine of over $500,000 for life safety and building code violations that went uncorrected for years at a Woodford Street apartment building.

City officials won a civil court judgment last month against Sulan Chau stemming from more than a dozen code violations at a five-unit building at 112 Woodford St. The court levied a fine of $510,300 against Chau, who let some of the violations go uncorrected for two years and did not show up for her Jan. 8 trial in District Court. She also was ordered to pay $3,000 in attorney fees and other court costs.

Chau was not represented by an attorney during the first round in court. But on Jan. 24, attorney Roy Pierce filed a notice of intent to appeal the lower court decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Chau’s behalf.

As of Thursday, Pierce had not filed any documents stating the basis of the appeal. He did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.

Anne Torregrossa, the city attorney who prosecuted the case, said Chau’s appeal was expected.

City officials said last month that the fine was the largest in recent memory for code violations. The fine imposed by District Court Judge Peter J. Goranites was based on the number of days each violation went uncorrected and the city’s effort to gain compliance.

Goranites said the fines were appropriate for several reasons: “the lengthy history of violations at the property; the significant amount of effort put in by the city to obtain compliance; the fact that this is not the first dispute that the defendant has been involved in with the city; and the fact that the city has not provided incorrect or inaccurate information to defendant.”

Torregrossa said she has had a brief conversation with Pierce, who told her the appeal would focus on the size of the fine. She speculated that Chau’s absence from her own trial would be an obstacle for her to overcome. But Torregrossa said it would be difficult to comment on the likelihood of the fines being overturned without seeing Chau’s argument, which will be filed after the court produces a transcript of the trial.

“The hard part for me is I don’t even know what their arguments are, but I think Judge Goranites did a good job justifying his opinion,” she said.

City officials said that more than a dozen code violations were discovered by firefighters during a routine safety inspection.

Violations included obstructed exits, a lack of smoke detectors, electrical problems, “numerous instances of bed bugs” and leaky sewer pipes, according to court documents. Some violations, such as obstructed exits, excessive storage and lack of fire doors, had gone uncorrected for more than two years.

As of the January court ruling, two of the violations – the bed bugs and leaky pipes – still had not been corrected. But Torregrossa said those violations have since been resolved.

The investigation into Chau’s building on Woodford Street began as part of an intensified city enforcement effort after six young adults died in the November 2014 fire at 20-24 Noyes St. It was Maine’s deadliest fire in 40 years.

The fire led to the creation of a new Housing Safety Office, which oversees a registry of about 2,600 landlords and helps firefighters inspect rental units. Firefighters are responsible for inspecting apartment buildings with three or more units, and the Housing Safety Office inspects apartment buildings below that threshold.

The city also has been more aggressive in taking unresponsive landlords to court.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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