ORONO, Maine — Despite all the problems that have surfaced since it opened last fall, an apartment complex occupied mostly by college students meets all applicable building standards, according to the town code enforcement officer.
Getting the town’s largest apartment complex permitted and inspected in time for the start of college classes last fall required an all-out effort on the part of town officials, who worked late into move-in day on Sept. 1, code enforcement officer William Murphy said last week.
Five months later, town officials still are dealing with problems connected to The Grove, a roughly $25.3 million development that has a 620-tenant capacity.
The staff time The Grove has consumed since construction began in late 2011 has prompted Orono officials to rethink how large development projects are handled, according to Murphy.
“Each building was permitted separately. It got to be close to the move-in date so we accommodated them. Maybe we shouldn’t have, but we accommodated them,” he said.
Owned and built by North Carolina-based Campus Crest Communities Inc., the complex has been the source of complaints since it opened, according to residents interviewed by the Bangor Daily News, town officials and reports from The Maine Campus, the student newspaper at the University of Maine in Orono.
The Grove has had problems with heating, electricity and mold that some tenants say is causing health problems. Last month, tenants were plunged in and out of darkness for a week because the heat pumps used in the complex overtaxed its electrical system.
The kinds of problems experienced — especially when winter hit — led tenants and others to believe that Campus Crest, which has about 40 properties nationwide, had built a facility designed for warmer climes. They questioned whether it met building standards for northeastern states such as Maine.
During an interview, Murphy described the permitting and inspection process leading to The Grove’s opening.
According to Murphy, The Grove was designed to the standards of the International Building Code for this climate district.
“It has to be updated for the area. I don’t know if they have something in Florida but let’s use Florida as an example,” he said. “You can’t build the same kind of housing development in Maine that you would in Florida.”
Despite the company’s work to adapt its building plans to Maine climate conditions, change orders were needed because in reviewing the plans, town officials determined that some of the materials specified either were not code appropriate or, in the case of the electrical work, would not adequately serve this project, Murphy said.
The entire complex went up in nine months. It was completed just in time for the start of the fall semester.
“That’s what they were shooting for, yes. We all had our concerns from the town’s standpoint. We wondered if they’d be able to make that. But they did,” Murphy said, adding, “They got a break last year. If you remember last year in the winter, they got a lot of rain but it was not very cold. If it was this year, they wouldn’t have made it.”
In contrast, Orchard Trails, a slightly smaller apartment complex with a capacity of 576 renters, took a full year to build.
The first approval Campus Crest received was a land use permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The permit was issued in January 2010, according to Jim Beyer, regional licensing and compliance manager for the DEP’s Division of Land Resources Regulation.
Town officials who signed off on the project besides Murphy were the town’s fire marshal and the Orono Planning Board, Murphy said.
Murphy said local officials had 30 days to review the construction, plumbing, heating and electrical permits, once Campus Crest applied for them.
“We used every day of the 30 because the plans were so extensive,” he said, adding that he also conducted inspections while construction was under way. “I was there practically every day.”
The final hurdle was a series of certificates of occupancy — one for each of the complex’s 12 apartment buildings and eight townhouses. Because some minor work — such as the installation of streetlights and exterior lights and touch ups to bricks and mortar — remained, The Grove opened with temporary certificates issued as late as Sept. 1, which was move-in day, he said.
“It was quite a wild day,” Murphy said. “It was difficult because I had to go to the Campus Crest representative and say, ‘Those people can’t move into Building Whatever. They can’t move in yet.’ And they had people sitting in their cars waiting. It got to where I was releasing the buildings one by one.”
“They were anxious to get in but I was just as anxious to make sure the buildings met standards,” Murphy said.
“There were minor issues but I issued temporary [certificates of approval] based on them finishing the punch list by a certain time. I kept moving the deadline because they kept making progress,” Murphy said. He said the permanent certificates of occupancy were issued on Oct. 1.
Though town officials had heard complaints from the time The Grove opened, they decided to step in shortly after last month’s cold snap and the power outages and frozen sprinklers that followed. An action plan for handling problems was created during a meeting earlier this month in Orono. Town and Campus Crest officials who participated called the session “productive.”
Campus Crest has since made some progress, a company spokesman said.
“Our team is in regular contact with residents and the town officials, keeping them apprised of our progress and our plans to mitigate any potential recurrences in the future,” spokesman Jason Chudoba said last week. “Our focus remains on providing our residents with an exceptional living experience and operating as a responsible and valued corporate citizen.”
Steps taken include upgrading transformers, creating a system to alert renters of power outages, additional air quality tests, re-insulating parts of the complex, identifying units with consistently high humidity levels and seeking ways to optimize HVAC systems and balance temperature, he said.
Murphy went to the complex last week to meet with maintenance supervisors. He noted that a crew from Georgia had been onsite to make carpentry repairs. However, some work requiring plumbing and electrical permits has been delayed pending cost estimates and corporate approvals.
Meanwhile, Sean O’Mara, undergraduate student legal aid attorney at the University of Maine, is working with 15 to 20 students who have sought legal help for problems that include mold, higher than expected electricity overage fees, alleged substandard construction and staff entering apartments without providing the notice required by state law. He is working with the Bangor firm Pelletier & Faircloth to meet with clients and collect information.
“That process takes a while. I’m planning to send a few demand letters for the more serious cases dealing with the Unfair Trade Practices claims this week,” O’Mara said.
Murphy said that large-scale development projects in Orono such as The Grove likely will be handled differently in the future.
“In talking to the town manager, the only thing we would change is — and it’ll probably never happen again — is if a large project like that came on board, because of the time involved for me and the town as a whole, we would require the applicant to pay to have someone at the site all the time. A paid inspector,” he said. “We went through it and we did what we had to do, but we know that if necessary we’d do it slightly differently next time.”
Asked if there were any applications for projects similar to The Grove pending, Murphy said, “Not like that. Trust me.”