Apartment not up to code
City official: Units provide affordable housing
June 20, 2008
Steamboat Springs — The apartment where longtime Steamboat Springs resident David Engle died in a kitchen fire is not a legal residence and had no smoke detectors, fire investigators and city officials have confirmed. A city official also said there hasn’t been a widespread crackdown on illegal units because they often provide needed affordable housing.
Fire Marshal Jay Muhme, who finished the inspection at 705 Pine St. on Wednesday, said Engle apparently fell asleep while cooking french fries, and a grease fire from the gas cooking range filled the apartment with smoke. The investigation also showed there were no smoke detectors anywhere in the small, converted garage apartment.
“It was a hot grease fire that burned pretty fast and consumed all the oxygen before it could burn very far,” Muhme said. The adjoining unit, 243 Seventh St., had only minor smoke damage.
It is unclear if the apartment was required to have smoke detectors because there is no registered history of its conversion from a garage or any other construction permits on file.
Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg said autopsy results revealed Engle died from smoke inhalation. A toxicology report was still pending.
Tom Leeson, city community development and planning director, said the structure appears to be illegal because it did not go through a review process when new building codes were implemented in 2001.
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“We did not find any records of it having been registered as a secondary unit,” he said.
Leeson said the city would have a record if the apartment had gone through the review process.
“They would have been required to have building code upgrades and get an address for each one of the units,” he said.
Only the adjoining unit on Seventh Street is a registered city address.
If the apartment had gone through the process, it also would have been required to meet fire safety codes, including having a working smoke detector.
David Schamanski, who says he lived in the apartment for about a year in 1990 to 1991, said the residence had only one way in and out.
“It was really small,” he said, describing the apartment as about 10 feet wide and 25 feet long. “There was nothing safe about it. Even when I lived there, I was like, ‘How is this place up to code?'”
Herald Stout owned the 243 Seventh St. property from 1994 to 2004 and said he talked to the city about the property several times but never registered the second apartment because he thought the regulations didn’t apply.
Stout said the address at 705 Pine St. was an apartment when he purchased it, and because he made no changes he thought he didn’t need to update the records.
Leeson said that although former owners may not have brought the building into compliance when codes were implemented, responsibility now falls on the current landlord.
“The owner of the land is responsible. Even though the code changed when they were not the owners, the current owners continued the use and they are responsible,” Leeson said.
Reached by phone Thursday, current owner Jeff Gerber, who purchased the property in late 2007 with his wife, Trigg Gerber, declined to comment about the apartment or its legal status.
“At this time our concern is for Dave’s family and friends and we wish them the best in this extremely difficult time,” Gerber said. “Dave is going to be greatly missed.”
City Council President Loui Antonucci said he recalled the council discussing secondary units in the 1990s, but the current council has not addressed the issue.
“I do not recall in all my years on City Council having people complain about” illegal secondary units, he said. “That is one of the ways the community has coped with the lack of affordable housing.”
Antonucci said the council likely would be unaware of the issue unless someone brought it up or complained.
“I don’t know if we have somebody out there driving around looking for things that are illegal and stopping them,” he said. “Part of (the reason) is that regulation costs money.”
He also said the city hasn’t been motivated about looking for illegal units, but life safety issues still are important.
“Sometimes in a community like this when you do have housing issues, I think that sometimes there’s a tendency to allow things to occur, or at least we turn the other cheek sometimes in not knowing about it,” Antonucci said.
“That being said, if something is completely unsafe, we usually don’t let it go on without having some provision to make the life safety issue go away.”
Antonucci said he wasn’t sure whether Engle’s death would prompt the council to revisit the issue.
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