AUGUSTA — The city won the right to inspect eight apartment buildings owned by the city’s largest landlord Thursday after city officials said they are concerned that firefighters and tenants could be trapped in a fire.
Judge Beth Dobson agreed to issue an administrative search warrant after a hearing in Augusta District Court in which the city’s fire chief and a code enforcement officer testified.
Landlord Jim Pepin, through his attorney, Skip Spurling, had argued the city lacked probable cause to support a search warrant for buildings at 9, 31, 37, 41, 69 and 80 Washington St., as well as 2 and 4 Stewart Lane, a total of 43 rental units, according to city assessor records.
Stephen Langsdorf, the city’s attorney, sought the search warrant to gain access to the buildings after Pepin did not agree to allow fire and code officials inside.
“The search is not limited to looking solely at the issues identified but would be broader,” Dobson said, in a ruling from the bench. She said Langsdorf could draft the search warrant and she would sign it.
Langsdorf requested 45 days for the city to do the inspections. Outside the courthouse, he said 10 days is the norm, however, usually when only one building is involved.
Langsdorf said the inspections can prevent problems. He said the city’s concerns include “a possibility of catastrophic fire, possibility of injury to emergency personnel” and risks to other buildings in the densely populated area. “People could be trapped and fire escapes can catch on fire.”
The eight buildings are all in the Sand Hill section of the city.
Outside the courthouse, Pepin, who lives in Augusta, said he had no comment.
“Mr. Pepin has always been willing to cooperate with the city,” Spurling said, adding that “the city did not want to negotiate.”
He said it was Pepin’s constitutional right to make the city get a search warrant to enter the premises.
In a previous ruling, Dobson indicated she was likely to issue a warrant for inspections of 80 Northern Ave. and 2 Stewart Lane. She wrote, “The court determined that the requirements for a search warrant were generally met, namely that the city is authorized to conduct inspections of housing for suspected fire code violations…”
She ended by saying, “The court does not need to go so far, but it is possible to conclude that a warrant could issue for all buildings with the same owner, relying solely on the allegations and probable cause findings with respect to one building.”
Augusta Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton testified Thursday that he had previously dealt with Pepin over code deficiencies and was not permitted to inspect the inside of these eight buildings.
Overton testified about problems he saw from the outside of the buildings:
â¢ 4 Stewart Lane has only one safe means of exiting the building. “The second way is a ladder bolted to side of building,” Overton said. He also said the windows that open to the ladder “appear to be undersized.”
â¢ 9 Washington St.’s egress “is nonconforming as far as heights of guards or handrails. The egress windows are undersized, and it does not appear to have correct number of egress windows from the upper stories,” Overton said.
â¢ 31 Washington St. units only have one suitable means of exit. A second exit consists of platforms outside of windows with ladders that lead to the ground, which Overton classified as unsuitable. He also said the windows appear undersized.
â¢ 37 Washington St. has ladders for second exits and “clearly undersized” windows.
â¢ 41 Washington St. has substandard exits as far as the guardrails and handrails and undersized egress windows.
One building also had an interior corridor, but the doors leading to it were not fire-rated, Overton testified.
Spurling asked Overton whether he had measured the egress windows, and Overton said no. He said a tenant allowed him inside her apartment at 80 Northern Ave., but did not want him to inspect it for compliance with the safety code, telling him she feared being evicted.
Augusta Fire Chief Roger J. Audette, said the department had been called to a fire at 146 Northern Ave., where firefighters searching for second-floor occupants briefly found their only exit blocked by fire.
He testified that the lack of a second exit violated the safety code.
“Firefighters are in these buildings when they’re on fire,” Audette said. “To give them quick ability for secondary means of escape is extremely important.”
He also said balconies and stairs need to be safe for emergency medical technicians to respond to rescue calls and to safely carry people from buildings.
“In this particular matter, both the codes enforcement officer and the fire chief identified and observed apparent violations of the code in each one of the properties,” Langsdorf argued in closing. “Our position is that’s sufficient probable cause for the city to inspect buildings for public safety, not for criminal prosecution.”
Spurling said the city failed to provide enough specifics to be allowed to search the building.
“The reality is they just want to have a general search warrant,” Spurling said. “Probable cause still has to exist in one form other than âI stood outside building and I don’t think they are in compliance.'”