BRUNSWICK — Town councilors agreed to consider revisions after landlords Monday thrashed a proposal that would require annual Fire Department inspections of all multi-unit apartment buildings.
Although the proposed fire inspection ordinance dominated the discussion, the Town Council also approved construction of a radio tower that will allow the owners of FirstWave Media to revive local AM radio and amended an ordinance to allow farm animals in the town’s growth zone.
The fire inspection ordinance was introduced by Councilors Margo Knight and Benet Pols in response to a series of destructive fires in downtown apartment buildings last winter and spring that displaced nearly 50 people and killed one man.
Although none of the fires could have been prevented by inspections, the events left many concerned that the Fire Department does not have the staff to proactively inspect multi-unit apartment buildings. Instead, the department only responds to complaints.
The proposal would add an inspector who would inspect apartment buildings with three or more units. Building owners would pay a flat fee for the first three units in a building, plus another undetermined amount for each additional unit; the fees would eventually cover the inspector’s $77,000 annual salary.
Several councilors said they had received calls from landlords who opposed the frequency, cost and philosophy behind the ordinance.
Indeed, before opening the public hearing at Monday’s meeting, Knight and Pols acknowledged that the details of the inspection program needed to be rewritten, with input from property owners, about 10 of whom spoke against the ordinance that night.
Helen Nicita, who manages 91 units in Brunswick, read a letter on behalf of one of her landlords, Jonathan Shepherd, who said he “appreciated the protective spirit of the ordinance,” but found it flawed in many ways.
“The insurance company already performs the inspections required by the proposed ordinance,” Shepherd said, and suggested owners submit annual proof of insurance instead of undergoing the inspections.
Shepherd also said if forced to pay inspection fees, he would have no choice but to pass the costs on to his tenants.
Other landlords objected to the ordinance on the grounds that many building fires are simply not the result of code violations.
Eric Herman, who owns the 12-unit apartment building at 84 Union St. that burned in February, said the blaze that consumed his building was a cooking accident.
“It comes down to, where is the personal responsibility?,” Herman asked. He said the ordinance is a good thought, but he is skeptical of the implications.
“I don’t see how it works without having some sort of Orwellian super-monitoring kind of thing,” he said.
Others objected to the additional cost of hiring another town employee.
Peter Footer, who said he is not a landlord, told the council that “this is no time in history to be adding anything to the town of Brunswick’s grossly over-expensive budget.”
But two residents of the neighborhood around 16-18 Oak St., which was damaged when a fire swept through the six-unit building in April, urged the council to proceed with the ordinance and focus on property maintenance issues.
“Maybe an ordinance is a little the cart before the horse,” said Claudia Knox, “but I want to say this is important.” She criticized the complaint-driven system now in place, which she said “fails before it starts because tenants are afraid of the consequences of making complaints.”
Vicky Marr, who previously petitioned the council to do something about the Oak Street building, which has not been torn down or rebuilt, said an inspection program could protect neighborhoods from deterioration.
Support for the ordinance on the council also appeared to be mixed. Chairman Joanne King and Councilor Suzan Wilson criticized the proposal both for its content and potential cost. Wilson said she particularly opposes the “one-size-fits-all” approach to inspecting all multi-units annually, instead of just problem properties.
“If you cannot figure out what the problem really is … then really it is just a total waste of time,” she said.
After hearing the criticism, Pols said he would meet with landlords and the Fire Department to refine the proposal before bringing it back to the council for a workshop.
The council also unanimously amended the town’s ordinances to allow in-town residents to keep domesticated farm animals. The changes allow no more than two animals to be kept on a two-acre lot and requires manure to be removed every 30 days.
Additionally, the owners of FirstWave Media received the go-ahead from the council to build a 199-foot AM radio tower on Old Portland Road. The tower would broadcast WMCE 900 AM, resurrecting a local community radio station that existed from 1955 to 1972.