Editorial Board, September 2008
- Suzanne Schlicht, general manager
- Brent Boyer, editor
- Mike Lawrence, city editor
- Tom Ross, reporter
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Steamboat Springs Seven months after David Engle's unfortunate death in an illegal Steamboat Springs apartment, city staff has authored revisions to the Community Development Code that would require inspections of secondary dwelling units while also improving enforcement procedures. The Steamboat Springs City Council should approve the revised code as recommended by the Planning Commission last week.
The revised ordinances come in the wake of Engle's June 15 death in his Old Town apartment. Engle died of smoke inhalation after falling asleep while making french fries on his gas stove. The smoke from the grease fire also killed Engle's dog.
In the days after Engle's death, an investigation revealed that the one-bedroom residence he rented from a local couple had no smoke detectors. The unit also wasn't registered as a legal residential dwelling, despite the fact that city codes adopted in 2001 require all secondary units - those located on the same lot as a larger, principal dwelling unit - to be registered and subject to code review.
The months since Engle's death have resulted in several key findings, including the existence of between 20 and 30, if not more, unregistered secondary units within city limits. Tom Leeson, the city's director of planning and community development, acknowledged the number of suspected unregistered secondary units is higher than originally thought.
That number compares to the 100 or so secondary units that legally are registered with the city.
The revised codes proposed by city staff accomplish several things, including:
- Remove a provision that gives property owners a second 15-day warning to resolve any violations to city development codes. The second warning stipulation has been a burden for city staff in that some violators are able to abuse the system and ignore calls to resolve their violations.
- Require secondary units to be inspected by the Routt County Regional Building Department for compliance with health and safety guidelines. Those guidelines include provisions for smoke detectors, structural safety, emergency egress, lighting and ventilation, and heating, electrical and plumbing standards.
- Require that owners of newly constructed secondary units obtain a certificate of occupancy or certificate of approval from the building department.
The new requirements will go a long way toward ensuring secondary units provide safe living conditions for renters. But their success is incumbent upon the owners of such units registering them with the city. To that end, the revised ordinance offers an eight-month grace period for property owners to register their units and bring them up to compliance. During that period, which would end Sept. 30, 2009, the city's Planning Department will waive the $50 application fee for registering a secondary unit, and the Regional Building Department will lower its inspection fee from $500 to $100.
Leeson said the revised code would have a minimal fiscal impact to the city and that enforcement could be accomplished with existing staffing levels.
Kudos to Leeson and his staff, as well as the Routt County Regional Building Department, for making the necessary changes to the Community Development Code. And kudos to the City Council for pushing for such changes. The council's adoption of the ordinance will help prevent future tragedies.
Ultimately, however, it's up to the owners of secondary units to accept the moral and legal responsibilities they have to their tenants and their city. Failing to comply with the law or provide living quarters that meet basic health and safety requirements is simply inexcusable.