Portland task force meets as lawsuit follows fatal fire

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PORTLAND — The task force created to review city code enforcement procedures and staffing began a series of meetings Dec. 3, looking to have recommendations ready for City Councilors by Feb. 10, 2015.

The first task force meeting came a day before Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ordered the assets of Gregory Nisbet, the owner of 20-24 Noyes St., frozen as part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Steven Summers, a victim of a Nov. 1 fatal fire at Nisbet’s building.

The initial 90-minute task force meeting was attended by Boston Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Fleming, city Inspections Division Director Tammy Munson, Planning Board Chairman Stuart O’Brien, city Inspections Deputy Director Jon Rioux, Julie Sullivan of the city Health and Human Services Department, Portland Deputy Fire Chief Keith Gautreau, and Portland Neighborhood Prosecutor Rich Bianculli.

A second phase phase of meetings in January 2015 will focus on landlord and tenant issues and include local property owners Carlton Winslow, Crandall Toothaker, Kathryn McGovern of Pine Tree Legal Services, and Julie Gregor of the Portland Housing Authority.

The intent of the task force, created by acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, is to get recommendations to the City Council Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee by early February, even if not all that is recommended needs to be part of the fiscal year 2016 budget.

“It’s not a review of what happened at the Noyes Street fire, this is a review of the codes,” Sullivan said. “(We are) not going to do a blow-by-blow of what did or didn’t happen that day.”

The fire at 20-24 Noyes St. killed six people. Gautreau said a report on the cause from the Office of the State Fire Marshal may come next week.

Fleming, who will provide technical assistance, suggested fire, building and housing inspectors work out of the same office, because it improved coordination between the divisions in Boston.

“Create a template of every area people enforce,” he suggested, adding that public education will be a critical factor no matter how codes or inspection procedures may be revised.

Hashing out how to refer inspections between divisions, revise codes, and possibly making inspections more proactive will be daunting, especially as city fire codes must also be in line with those adopted by the state.

Aligning with state codes covers new construction only, Munson noted, giving he city some leeway in revising codes for existing buildings.

“We do proactive inspections for three units or larger,” Gatreau said. “As a general rule of thumb, we don’t go knocking on the doors of one or two units.”

Fleming noted inspections of the estimated 20,000 triple-decker units in Boston is impractical, but landlords knowing at least some inspections are occurring can achieve a lot in terms of better protection.

“The private sector wants predictability and fairness,” he said.

The task force meets Wednesdaysin City Hall Room 209, at 2:30 p.m. this week and 10:30 a.m. Dec 17. Meetings are open to the public, although public comment is not accepted. 

In the aftermath of the Noyes Street fire, which killed tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26; city resident Christopher Conlee, 25, Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson, 26, and Rockland resident Steven Summers, 29, the city released inspection logs showing 16 complaints about the property dating to 2003 and recorded as recently as June regarding possible illegal dwelling units and unsafe conditions outside the multi-unit home.

The complaint logs also recorded an inability to reach owner Nisbet and set up property inspections.

In a motion filed Nov. 21 as part of a wrongful death suit by Summers’ widow, Ashley Summers of Topsham, Wheeler was asked to freeze real estate assets held by Nisbet in light of a requested judgment of at least $1.6 million for his alleged negligence in the death of Steven Summers.

Unlike the other victims, who died on the second and third floors of 20 Noyes Street from smoke inhalation, Summers escaped the blaze. The suit said he suffered burns over 98 percent of his body.

According to court records, the “only part of his body that was relatively unscathed were the bottoms of his feet.” Summers died Nov. 4 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Wheeler froze assets at four properties owned by Nisbet. Besides 20-24 Noyes St., a home listed as Nisbet’s residence at 124 Noyes St. and multi-unit homes at 186-192 and 181-187 Dartmouth St. were included in the order.

The properties were valued at $1.7 million, and Wheeler said it is likely Nisbet would pay at least that much if he loses lawsuits that could be filed against him.

“There is a clear danger the defendant will withdraw goods and credits from the hands and possession of the trustee,” Wheeler said.

So far, the suit filed by Ashley Summers is the only one on record.

It claims Nisbet’s negligence created dangerous conditions Summers was unaware of when he visited friends on the night of Oct. 31. An affidavit from former tenant Shanna Fratini, who lived in the building through 2011, said smoke detectors were not working and one was “hanging off a wall” in her bedroom.

“After I moved in, I only saw Nisbet on the property once, and I believe that was to collect the first rent check,” Fratini said.

Conditions included a leaking oil tank in the basement “which necessitated us putting a bucket under it and periodically emptying it,” she said.

Paul Garrido, who visited the home with Summer on Oct. 31, mentioned several possible violations in his affidavit.

“I did not hear any fire alarms at any point in the entire ordeal,” said Garrido, who was sleeping on the first floor. He and tenant Nathan Long tried to wake others in the house around 7:15 a.m., but a rear second floor stairway was blocked by a bookshelf.

The suit also alleges Nisbet was negligent because he failed to show Long where smoke detectors were when Long move in about 18 months ago.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.