Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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The untimely death of Steamboat Springs resident David Engle last Sunday was a preventable tragedy that raises questions concerning personal and public responsibility on the part of landlords, the city and tenants.
Mr. Engle was found dead in a converted garage apartment he rented at 705 Pine St. after a small kitchen fire that apparently was sufficient to kill him and his dog. No smoke detector was found in the home. The sad task of stating the obvious fell to city Fire Marshall Jay Muhme, who said, "It's possible that having a smoke detector in the house could have made the outcome different."
Inconceivable as it is in 21st century America, those 16 words are uttered by fire officials every day across our country. It is unconscionable that it takes a needless death to awaken us to responsibilities shirked at so many levels.
One level of responsibility is born by landlords. According to interviews of city and county officials conducted by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, there are questions about the legality of Mr. Engle's residence.
The property where Mr. Engle resided was purchased last fall for $612,000 by Jeff and Trigg Gerber of Steamboat Springs. To date, a certificate of occupancy has not been located for Mr. Engle's unit on the property. Steamboat Springs Department of Planning and Community Development Director Tom Leeson believes the unit is an illegal residence.
But putting aside the legality of this specific property, the bigger public policy question is whether there are landlords in Steamboat ignoring laws designed to safeguard tenants. Based upon statements made by city and county officials, the answer is yes.
Routt County Assessor Mike Kerrigan told the Steamboat Pilot & Today there are many illegal buildings in Steamboat and enforcement of regulations is lax. Bob Keenan, senior planner for the city's Planning Department, stated the department does not routinely search for illegal units and typically issues only one or two citations a year after complaints are made.
In the most revelatory statement of all, Mr. Keenan said, "Obviously, life safety is an issue - but we don't actively pursue illegal units. It's not something we're budgeted for."
I beg to differ with Mr. Keenan. If the city is not actively pursuing illegal units, life safety is not an issue.
When a public official from the department charged with enforcing the city's building laws acknowledges the department doesn't "actively pursue illegal units," somebody at a higher level of responsibility ought to take notice. That body - with ultimate responsibility for enforcing public safety laws - is the Steamboat Springs City Council.
Given the council's responsibility for the welfare of all citizens - landlords and tenants alike - the actions of the council in the wake of Mr. Engle's death are worth monitoring. As citizens, it is our responsibility to see if the council exerts leadership over a government that has ignored illegal residences for far too long.
We will soon know how this City Council responds in the wake of Mr. Engle's death. Will the council pass the buck and continue to look the other way as some form of perverted unwritten affordable housing policy? Or, will the council demonstrate willingness to accept the responsibility voters entrusted to them by investigating the extent of the illegal housing market in Steamboat Springs and enforcing the laws they swore to uphold?
In short, will the council demand answers to the questions raised by Mr. Engle's death?
Don't be optimistic. For City Council President Loui Antonucci to state, "I do not recall in all my years on City Council having people complain about (illegal secondary units)," is breathtaking. The council should not be sitting back, waiting until someone dies to take action on an issue it has known about for years.
Hopefully this council will not squander the challenge Mr. Engle's death has placed before them.
The final level of responsibility is one we cannot ignore. The truth is, to some degree, tenants bear responsibility for the safety of the homes in which they reside. Newspapers, TV and radio are filled with public service announcements reminding us all to install and maintain smoke detectors. That makes it all the more disheartening whenever anyone dies under circumstances where a smoke detector may have changed the outcome.
No tenant should wait for a landlord to provide a smoke detector. If it's a matter of cost, the Steamboat Springs Fire Department will provide smoke detectors for free. Please - if you don't have a smoke detector, get one today.
The best way we can honor the life of Mr. Engle is for City Council, landlords and each of us to shoulder our different responsibilities to protect ourselves and our neighbors.
Douglas can be reached at Douglas@privacytoday.com