Tenants stay while health violations addressed
NEWFANE — Tenants will not need to leave apartments in Brattleboro deemed unsafe by officials as long as the owner addresses certain health violations within a week.
"Judge, I believe that the dispute is now moot because last night there was a hearing held in front of the Board of Health," William Hunter, the owner of 48-50 Central St. and 6 Reynolds Drive, said Wednesday in Windham Superior Court, Civil Division. "The town made clear that they are not requesting the tenants be out of the building while the work they want to be done is being done."
Judge Michael Kainen vacated an injunction that had allowed tenants in the apartments to stay until a court hearing could be held after the town issued an emergency health order last week. He said Hunter's pleadings indicated tenants would have been given 24 hours to leave their residences.
Hunter has seven days to make all repairs and cure all violations discovered by Vermont Division of Fire Safety Fire Prevention inspection results; submit a management plan to the town health officer on work and inspection plans for the properties; hire a licensed exterminator or pest control specialist to treat a bed bug infestation; remove all material and articles from outside areas, egress areas, basements and attics so no "excessive combustibles" are in those spaces; have a licensed furnace technician repair a fuel leak in the furnace and service all furnaces; remove all extension cord use for apartments and maintain enforcement of a rule not to use extension cords for household appliances; repair all wall penetrations; educate tenants on the need to maintain smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; and conduct regular inspections of the apartments every three weeks and report the findings to the health officer.
On Tuesday, the Brattleboro Select Board acting as the Board of Health approved a health order outlining those items. The order, which had been proposed by Brattleboro Assistant Fire Chief and Health Officer Len Howard, went into effect after the court hearing.
"It's not just the health and safety of the residents," board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said, "but the neighborhood."
Town Attorney Bob Fisher said an emergency health order was issued last week for the buildings and Hunter was given the opportunity to appeal within five days. The buildings were to be closed down until violations were addressed.
Fisher said tenants were being assisted with finding alternative housing but a court order allowed them to stay. Judge Kainen had approved an injunction from the order at Hunter's request, and a hearing was scheduled.
Inspections Monday showed improvements but still came up with "numerous public health violations," Fisher told the board. "The town will not be asking for no-occupancy order but simply a health order that's been proposed."
Howard said he and town Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon have been dealing with the two properties for the last two or three years. The buildings received 23 visits from them for health issues this year.
"Central Street has been issued two tickets under the ordinance for trash and Reynolds Drive has been issued one ticket," Howard said, noting that issues continued to arise when returning to properties. "And the biggest concern to the fire department and anybody is life safety."
Howard told the board missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors had been "the big reason" for not wanting to allow occupancy in the properties. He said alarms were all in place Monday and state fire officials felt it would be safe for the tenants to stay. He provided reports for the properties.
At 6 Reynolds Drive, bedbugs were still expected to be an issue after an egg was sighted by Bannon. A ground-fault circuit interrupter outlet was not working right, too much fuel was being stored in the basement, holes in the exterior and interior walls needed to be covered, and trash and debris inside and outside needed to be removed.
At 48 Central St., a handrail was needed for the staircase outside and excessive combustibles were being stored.
At 50 Central St., too many extension cords were being used due to a lack of outlets, an outlet was missing a cover, no handrails or guardrails were on the basement stairs, the basement had excessive combustibles, and a basement light fixture was hanging by wires.
Fisher described some of the electrical violations as "extremely dangerous to human life."
Hunter told the board he had not been given results Monday's inspections.
"I would certainly appreciate seeing what is being presented here," he said, "and I think it's a little unfair that it's being presented without being furnished to me."
Hunter said he received notice of emergency health order from a police officer in Springfield and told Howard he would be going to the court to ask for an injunction.
"Over the course of the last several years, I thought I worked well with Mr. Bannon and Mr. Howard," Hunter said. "We have had multiple inspections. We have had problems with tenants taking down smoke detectors, having to be told that they need to be kept in place."
There have been issues with trash, Hunter said, "but by and large I think we have addressed the problems that have been brought to our attention."
"I would like to go back to what I thought was a more cooperative relationship that we had," he said. "I don't want to have to be spending time going to court to tell people not to do things the way that they've chosen to do them. But it was very important for me that people who have had a history of homelessness not be homeless again. And I'm glad the court issued the order. I'm very glad to hear that the town is not seeking to order everybody out."
Rhianna Kendrick, director of operations at Groundworks Collaborative, said she appreciates Hunter "takes tenants who have may have challenging histories, but housing folks who were previously homeless in substandard housing is actually not a benefit to them."
"I'm really concerned about what happens to the tenants," she said.
Kendrick said tenants could have to seek vouchers to stay at motels if there is a no-occupancy order.
"Those have limits on them so tenants were excited to move back," she said.
Her group works to fight against homelessness and food insecurity.
On curing the violations, Hunter told the board, "As I've said, I'm being furnished this now for the first time. We're about to move into a period of time when there is a holiday."
"You did not just say that," Select Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr said. "This is people's safety. This work gets done, whether it's a holiday or not. And I understand that you may have just gotten this but considering your involvement with the town, there's no way you could be thinking it would be much different than it is right now."
Board member David Schoales said he would be sympathetic if there had not been so many violations. He counted 12 violations for the properties in 2017, 17 in 2018 and 14 this year.
Howard said the only new parts coming from Monday's inspection involve having an electrical inspection conduct a more thorough inspection and addressing a leak found in an oil burner.
"All these other things are things we find each time we go in there," he said.
Town Manager Peter Elwell challenged Hunter's description of the relationship between him and the town, calling the Board of Health hearing a "very serious matter."
"It's so rare that it's the first time that we've conducted one of these in my five years with the town," he said. "We only get to this stage of the process when the communication up until now hasn't led to a solution."
Schoales said he has not participated in a hearing of the kind in his seven years on the board. Fisher said in most cases, property owners will sign paperwork agreeing to make fixes in a certain time frame set by the health officer or state.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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