The Chebeague Island Inn is disputing a bill from the town that says the hotel owes more than $10,000 for fire watch services provided in May 2018. Courtesy/ Chebeague Island Inn

CHEBEAGUE — Selectmen say Chebeague Island Inn owes more than $10,000 to the Fire Department for keeping an eye on the hotel when its fire suppression system was temporarily offline in May 2018.

But the inn disputes the bill, arguing that its own personnel could have and should have been allowed to conduct the fire watch that was required under the town’s building codes and provisions of the National Fire Protection Association’s fire and life safety code.

Now the town may seek legal action.

Selectmen on Aug. 28 approved a letter that seeks redress regarding the unpaid bill. Town Administrator Marjorie Stratton did not provide a copy of the letter prior to the Forecaster’s print deadline Tuesday because she would only make it public after it had been sent to the inn’s owners. Efforts to reach her Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The Chebeague Island Inn, at 61 South Road, is one of the town’s premier attractions. It was originally built in the late 1800s and was voted a Top Hotel in New England by Condé Nast Traveler. The inn sits on 2.5 acres of oceanfront property with views of Casco Bay. It also offers easy access to Hamilton Beach.

Originally known as The Hillcrest Hotel, the inn burned down in the early 1900s and was rebuilt in the 1920s. In 2000 the name was changed to Chebeague Island Inn, followed by a complete restoration in 2004.

Last year, the inn’s owners undertook what spokesman Casey Prentice called “a significant, six-figure upgrade to the fire suppression system.” However, the system wasn’t fully functional when the inn opened to guests in mid-May 2018, which led to the need for the fire watch – a 24-7 operation.

A fire watch is designed to take the place of the automatic system and entails regular surveillance and visual inspection of all areas, including the exterior, to detect any signs of trouble, including smoke. For instance, the inn’s owners initially offered a schedule whereby inspections would occur every 15 minutes.

Stratton said the fire watch bill covers the period from May 19-31, 2018. In all, she said the town billed the inn for $10,243.75: $35 per hour during the day and $40 an hour for overnights, according to Prentice.

Stratton said if the inn continues to dispute the fire watch bill, it would be up to the Board of Selectmen to determine what the next steps should be, including the possibility of taking the inn’s owners to court.

Prentice said the inn agreed that a fire watch was required, but it wanted to use its own staff instead of relying on firefighters provided by the town.

He said the fire watch bill is “unpaid to date as its validity is being disputed.”

“Our contention is that our staff should have been the ones to (conduct the watch),” said Prentice. “Accordingly, we believe the amount owed to the town should be the rate we paid our staff, multiplied by the hours the town reported.”

Prentice said Chebeague Fire Chief Ralph Munroe felt strongly that Fire Department staff needed to be the ones to conduct the fire watch and he was backed up by Code Enforcement Officer Jim Butler. Although the inn eventually got the State Fire Marshal’s Office to agree that hotel staff could have run the fire watch, it’s unclear whether anyone employed by the inn actually conducted such a watch.

What Prentice is arguing is that the town’s bill is too much and the hourly rate should equal what the inn paid its own staff at the time. Overall, he added, “We object to the arbitrary decision to pay unsustainable hourly rates to the Fire Department when it is not required.”

He said the inn’s owners have tried to work with Stratton to resolve the situation.

“We have actively been seeking resolution and offered a negotiated settlement last year, which was never responded to,” Prentice said.

He said the fire code only stipulates that a fire watch be performed by someone that’s been trained and who is not also conducting their regular duties, such as working at the front desk or providing other guest services.

For example, he said the inn’s general manager, Glen Sanokklis, had performed a fire watch while employed at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport and he was “well versed in the training (and) reporting” required.

Prentice said while he understands the requirement for a fire watch to keep both inn guests and staff safe, he said the town has a “moral and ethical responsibility (not to use) their authority in an arbitrary manner.”

“In my opinion, (it was) unethical and coercive to threaten to close the business, along with the threat of requiring other costly measures, such as hiring a fire engine to be stationed and manned 24/7 in the driveway, if we didn’t comply with the rates of pay for the Fire Department,” Prentice said.

Selectmen next meet at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, when the dispute with the Chebeague Island Inn may be further addressed.

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