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Friday, April 23, 2010

Fires cause flare-up of inspection, code issues

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Finance and Commerce said...

April 9, 2010 4:27 PM CDT
Fires cause flare-up of inspection, code issues
by BRIAN JOHNSON AND BILL CLEMENTS Staff Writers

Cities say court decision won’t let them enforce building maintenance codes

The recent fires in Minneapolis, including the one on East Lake Street that claimed the lives of six people, are adding a sense of urgency to some cities’ pleas for more authority to address fire safety concerns in older buildings.

Specifically, the fire in a commercial node at 50th Street and Bryant Avenue and the deadly blaze in a commercial-and-residential building at 3001 E. Lake St. have raised questions about the adequacy of city
inspections.

But inspections aren’t the only issue, experts say.
And there’s plenty of disagreement about whether or not cities have enough authority, under existing laws, to regulate existing buildings as they see fit and enforce local standards for building maintenance and fire safety.

A key factor: a May 2008 Minnesota Supreme Court decision in the case of Morris v. Sax, which essentially
states that local municipalities cannot regulate anything that is already regulated in the state building code.

“It doesn’t destroy our whole property code,” said St. Paul fire marshal Steve Zaccard. “But it guts it badly.”
At issue in the case were eight local code violations issued
by the city of Morris against Sax Investments, a rental
property owner. Sax fixed only four of the violations,
arguing that the other four didn’t need to be addressed
because they were in compliance with the state building
code.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Sax,
a decision that pleased landlords and builders. But fire
officials and the Minnesota League of Cities, among
others, say the decision handcuffs cities’ efforts to adopt
and enforce local maintenance codes that address older
buildings.

The city of St. Paul, which has adopted “minimum property maintenance standards” to “protect the public health, safety and welfare in all structures,” filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the city of Morris in
the Morris v. Sax case.
Zaccard said the Morris v. Sax decision “is devastating to local governments and their ability to maintain their existing properties.” The city of St. Paul has no interest in going above and beyond the state building code, Zaccard said.

However, he hastened to add that standards have improved dramatically over the years, and that the city just
wants to keep people safe.
Some cities, especially newer suburbs, may be OK with maintaining buildings to the code under which they were constructed, he said. But it’s a different story in larger cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have a lot of buildings that pre-date the building code.

“A better-maintained property is a safer property,” he said. “And this decision takes out of the city’s hands the ability to maintain our existing buildings,” including some that were built in the 1800s, “to some higher level of

12:02 AM  
Anonymous story continued said...

safety than they were built to.”
“Our standards have improved,” he added. “We do have a state fire code, but it doesn’t do much for existing buildings. Proper maintenance is a local community standard, and local elected officials should be able to set
the standards for their community.”
Legislation could help cities
Fire officials and the League of Minnesota Cities are among the backers of a House bill that would essentially “fix” the law upon which the Morris v. Sax decision was based, and make it possible for cities to enforce
property maintenance codes as long as they don’t exceed the state building code.

A competing Senate bill states, among other things, that local municipalities may not exceed “the provisions under which the structure, component or system was built, unless specific retroactive provisions for existing
buildings have been adopted as part of the state building code.”
A conference committee is trying to reconcile the two bills.

Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, is the author of the House bill.
“Prior to the State Supreme Court decision, cities could say, ‘It’s our city and we can do what we want.’ The Supreme Court said the state rules rule,” Mahoney said.
“What we are trying to do is get it so that there’s enough language that cities feel they can go in and inspect these places and say, ‘You’ve got a code violation, and even though this building was built in 1920, you need
to bring it up close enough to today’s standards as you can without tearing the whole thing down.’”

In general, the state building code states that an existing building and systems within the building can stand
as is unless there is a hazard or a remodeling or addition to the building, according to Tom Joachim, assistant
commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

Before the state building code was adopted in 1972, there were “over 200 different building codes in the
state,” he said. “Each city could adopt what they wanted,” which created a lot of confusion for builders and designers.

But there’s a “gray area” where the state building code meets local maintenance codes, according to Henry Reimer, director of inspections for the city of Minneapolis.

“Nobody defines maintenance codes versus the state building code,” he said. “I think the Supreme Court in making their decision was not even contemplating or appreciating the difference between maintenance and
building/new construction.”

One problem: The state building code doesn’t provide for preventive action, Reimer said.
“Cities have had handcuffs placed on them regarding what we can do on maintenance issues, and that’s
giving us a lot of heartburn,” added Reimer, whose department of 24 inspectors is responsible for buildings with three or fewer units, meaning it was not responsible for the inspections on the East Lake building.

12:09 AM  
Anonymous story continued said...

Jack Horner, chief lobbyist for the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which supports the Senate bill, said
cities have “plenty of power to enforce inspections” under Morris v. Sax. “They can require maintenance, but they can’t exceed the code,” Horner said. “If a building is legal when built
that’s the code under which it remains legal. You don’t have to rebuild a building every few years. You don’t
have to upgrade and spend tens of thousands” of dollars doing that every time the code changes.
With respect to the two recent fires in Minneapolis, Horner said, “There are fire codes that provide for fire
safety. I don’t know in either one of those cases that the problem was they couldn’t enforce additional building
code standards. They have full authority to enforce codes through inspections.”

The city of Morris, which was a central figure in that Supreme Court case, disagrees. It all stands out as a
safety issue, according to city manager Blaine Hill.
Hill said some landlords are “putting people into places they should not be putting them in. We think they
should be fixing these places up.”
As homes get older, “it gets to be a big issue,” Hill said. “In Morris the estimate is about 40 percent of our
housing stock is rental. We have a campus of the University of Minnesota] here and as [the housing] gets older, it gets run down and gets to be an issue.

12:09 AM  
Anonymous story conclusion said...

“That was some of the concern of a lot of cities. How do we control this?”

It’s ironic, Hill said, that a seller of an existing home has to have the dwelling inspected and, if necessary,
upgraded before they can close on the sale.

However, someone can “rent out a home and make money on it and they don’t have to make it safer for
people living there,” he said. “Some of this is common sense, and people want to know, is this a safe property
to rent?”
Information from a “friend of the court” briefing filed by the city of St. Paul in the Morris v. Sax case:

•St. Paul fire inspectors discovered “46,548 individual violations of state or local codes” between Sept. 1,
2006, and Aug. 31, 2007, and many violations were “potentially serious,” including disabling of smoke
detectors and improper installation of electrical equipment.

•In June 2006, a 23-year-old woman died, seven people were injured and two infants were found
unconscious as a result of a fire that occurred in multifamily rental building that did not have working smoke
detectors.

•“Substandard housing will proliferate if … the state building code pre-empts city enforcement efforts,
certainly putting more residents at risk of tragedy,” the brief noted.

12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

St. Paul does not sound like too safe of a place to live with that many code violations.

12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Code violations are criminal under the city codes. If they choose to they can charge you with a criminal offense if they discover a code violation at your property. So if Moriss vs Sax makes the city codes illegal then I am wondering if the city is violating people's civil rights on a wholesale scale by going after people with criminal tools when they have no authority to do so. I see a lot of litigation for this city council who seems to love fighting more than getting any results.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, is the author of the House bill.
Folks this guy is a DFL hack of the worse kind.

Contrary to what Steve Zaccard said Morris vs Sax has not slowed the city of Saint Paul's tyrannical actions one bit. In others words Zaccard is a liar!

Using the recent fires to catapult this bill Mahoney is attempting to push through the house is ludicrous.

I want you Babbling Idiots Mahoney and Zaccard to think about
this---> FACT IS, in recent months there has been more fires in relatively new multi unit rental complexes than old. Drywall doesn't contain a fire like the old buildings lathe and mortar walls.

I have seen evidence the city and folks like Mahoney are pushing for this crap because it puts their union buddies to work.

I sent out the usual invitations.

1:16 AM  
Anonymous Les Lucht said...

I need to know when the hearing on that bill. I tell then that fire inspector thinks that they are gods. And how much it cost to do
all repairs to please them.

there some many vancants here in st.paul. Why is sec.08 have so
many renters looking for places.

All the landland are called it quits. just walking away from their properties.


No more property taxes be collecting from landlord. More short falls for the twin sities.

7:10 PM  

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