The city of Steamboat Springs missed an opportunity to get the attention of the owners of illegal secondary residential units in the wake of the June 15 death of David Engle, some City Council members said this week.
In a presentation to council members Tuesday, Director of Planning and Community Development Tom Leeson said he did not consider citing the apartment's owners, Jeff and Trigg Gerber. Councilman Jon Quinn said Leeson missed an opportunity to send a message - and as a result may have sent the wrong one.
"There was no question in my mind that the property owner got the message," Leeson responded. "(Jeff Gerber) was devastated. He was also authentically sorry, and he honestly thought that unit was legal. He was in, literally, the next day. My approach is to quite honestly take a look at a person's attitude initially. He was punished enough."
But Quinn and others said the issue goes beyond a single property owner.
"I can appreciate that," Quinn said, "but the message I'm concerned about is the message to the rest of the community."
"I think we missed a possible opportunity to send a message to other people who own secondary units," Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski said.
Engle died of smoke inhalation after he fell asleep while cooking, and a grease fire ignited in his apartment at 705 Pine St. According to city codes, secondary units are those located on the same lots as principal dwelling units and include a sleeping area, kitchen and bathroom. Engle's apartment, which lacked any smoke detectors, was not registered as a legal secondary unit with the city.
The Triggs have owned the property since late 2007. The converted-garage apartment had been rented out for about 20 years. City officials urged all owners of secondary units to register when they revised city codes in 2001, but Gerber previously said he thought the unit was grandfathered in and didn't require review.
Council took no official action at Tuesday' work session meeting, but its members discussed ways to improve their regulation of secondary units and ensure that Steamboat residents live in safe homes.
One concrete improvement suggested Tuesday was closing an enforcement loophole created by a 15-day remedy period. When the city learns about an illegal unit, owners have 15 days to come into compliance before the municipal court judge can start imposing fines of as much as $999 a day. With no language in the Community Development Code pertaining to repeat offenders, the owners of illegal secondary units can come into compliance within 15 days - for example, by removing the unit's refrigerator so it no longer contains a kitchen as defined by the code - only to continue operating an illegal unit shortly thereafter. If and when the owner is caught again, they still are afforded the 15-day remedy period.
Other improvements discussed Tuesday would prove frustratingly difficult or ineffective, council members were told. One such idea, presented by Councilman Steve Ivancie, was to institute a six-month grace period during which owners of illegal secondary units could register them without paying the current $50 fee.
But Leeson said the owners of such units are probably more worried about much more substantial costs such as tap fees and tax increases that could accompany the registration of a secondary unit.
"The $50 fee, in my opinion, is not a deterrent," he said.
Also, Leeson said, there will always be units that will never meet the criteria to be registered. Ivancie was not deterred and insisted on taking action on the life-safety issue.
"Obviously there are reasons why a person would be reluctant to report a unit," he said. "I understand that, but rules are rules. : It's something where we can't shirk our responsibility. : We need to at least make the effort."
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