Our View: Protecting lives a pressing issue

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Editorial Board, June 2009 to September 2009

  • Suzanne Schlicht, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Mike Lawrence, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Grant Fenton, community representative
  • Paul Strong, community representative

Contact the editorial board at (970) 871-4221 or editor@steamboatpilot.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

We believe as strongly as ever that City Council struck out on the right path 15 months ago when it mounted a determined effort to identify and register nonconforming secondary apartments in Steamboat homes. The intent was to address safety issues.

It was the only prudent course for council to take in the wake of the June 2008 death of David Engle, who died from smoke inhalation after a grease fire in a converted Old Town garage apartment that lacked smoke detectors.

Now, it's come to our attention that the financial hit faced by owners of these nonconforming rental units may be conflicting with the city's goal of protecting their tenants.

With a deadline fast approaching Sept. 30 that will end a period of amnesty on a portion of city fees attached to inspecting unregistered units, city officials have confirmed that only 18 of dozens of homeowners thought to be in noncompliance have come forward to register.

We think we know the explanation. City officials also acknowledged that in some cases, homeowners face thousands of dollars in expenses to bring their units in compliance. Specifically, city regulations allow secondary units in existing single-family homes to be no larger than 650 square feet. Homeowners whose apartments are larger might have to demolish and rebuild interior walls to reduce the size of the units to permissible sizes.

In addition, homeowners who failed to obtain required building permits before constructing their secondary units would have to retroactively pay as much as several thousand dollars in tap fees. One can argue that's their responsibility. But what about people who purchased their homes with existing secondary units and had no way of knowing they did not meet city standards, or the original owner failed to get a building permit?

We're aware that a significant number of Steamboat residents depend on their income from the rental of secondary units.

Of course, protecting lives comes ahead of rental income. But if the costs associated with compliance are keeping landlords from coming forward, the city may be impeding its own well-intended goals.

City Planning Director Tom Leeson said this week that he would direct Code Enforcement Officer Christy Patterson to begin Oct. 1 writing enforcement letters to homeowners whom the city thinks may be operating unregistered.

Those homeowners will have 15 days to respond and agree to a plan to bring their apartments in to compliance. Failure to do so could result in a citation compelling them to appear in municipal court.

None of the 18 owners who have registered with the city thus far are among the 28 on a list of suspected nonconforming secondary units (all of them in Old Town). We suspect there may be dozens more in other residential neighborhoods. It's easy to guess that they are reluctant to come forward and face thousands of dollars in associated costs.

Leeson says the easiest way to avoid those costs is to remove any cooking appliances from the apartment, quickly bringing them in to compliance.

We think if the highest priority of City Council is to register secondary units so that inspectors can ensure there are adequate exits, stair rails, smoke detectors and electrical systems, the financial penalties should be substantially reduced or removed.

City Council should revisit the question to extend the moratorium, grandfather in existing secondary units greater than 650 square feet and forgive tap fees that weren't collected when the units were built. Going forward, the city should monitor new construction and collect appropriate fees.

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