Rockland landlords tell city it’s too strict in enforcing safety codes

Posted May 21, 2013, at 10:05 p.m.
Last modified May 22, 2013, at 6:46 a.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — A group of landlords has asked for a meeting with the City Council to discuss its enforcement of safety codes, contending that Rockland is stricter than other municipalities.

A letter was sent to the council on April 25 from the Rockland Landlord Committee, which represents 45 people who own or manage rental properties in the city.

“Our hope is to open the channels of discussion regarding the enforcement of the life safety code pertaining to multi-unit residential properties in Rockland, in congruence with comparable municipalities in the state,” the landlords stated in their letter.

Landlords contacted during the past few weeks have referred questions to Sumner Kinney, spokesman for the committee. Kinney did not return multiple calls for comment Tuesday.

Mayor Will Clayton said earlier this month he was willing to have the council discuss the landlords concerns but wanted more specifics before arranging such a meeting.

The landlords stated in their letter that their first priority is to “provide safe and affordable homes for our tenants.”

“We are also local business people, taxpayers and, in most cases, residents of Rockland. We recognize that there are many stakeholders who have an interest in the regulations applied to multi-unit properties and we believe that a full and open examination of such regulations and their enforcement is important for the City of Rockland,” they stated.

Rockland Fire Chief Charles Jordan Jr. referred questions about the landlords’ concerns to City Manager James Smith, who said the council endorsed the meeting.

Maine Assistant Fire Marshal Rich McCarthy said there is a state law regarding building codes intended to promote fire safety. He said the law is a minimum set of standards and that municipalities can impose additional restrictions. McCarthy said apartment building owners are required to meet the minimum standards but that enforcement is up to the municipalities.

The assistant fire marshal said if there is a fire and violations of the codes are found, the landlord could be held liable for civil or criminal penalties if there are injuries or a loss of life.

The City Council adopted an ordinance in 2008 requiring apartment buildings to be inspected when they are in the process of being sold before the sale becomes final. The city ordinance only pertains to apartment buildings with three or more units.

Rockland had 1,576 occupied rental units with 2,968 residents living in those apartments in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Those include single-family homes and duplexes that are rented. Forty-one percent of Rockland’s population lives in apartments, compared with 25 percent statewide and 22 percent in Knox County.

In a May 2012 interview, Rockland’s fire chief said that many of the apartment buildings in Rockland were once large single-family homes that were converted to multiple apartments. He acknowledged then that the greatest complaint he had heard from landlords was the enforcement of codes related to stairwells. The state’s life safety codes require stairwells to be at least 36 inches wide if they are the only means for occupants to get in and out of the apartment.

In most older Rockland homes, the rear stairway is too narrow and too steep to meet safety regulations when they are the primary exit for apartments.

In some cases, the building owners have been required to tear out walls and expand the width of the stairs.

The chief has pointed out that each of the regulations in fire safety codes were developed after a tragedy and that they are reasonable.

Belfast Fire Chief James Richards said his department inspects apartments in cooperation with the city’s code enforcement officer only if there is a request by a landlord or tenant. Richards said he cannot recall a time in his 39 years with the department that landlords have had to expand stairwells to meet the codes.

Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley said his department inspects only licensed facilities such as restaurants and hotels. He said if there are complaints about an apartment’s safety, he refers them to Camden Code Enforcement Officer Steve Wilson. If the problems are serious, he will notify the fire marshal.

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