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December 11. 2012 9:34PM

Durham rental inspections move toward being adopted

DURHAM - A town ordinance instituting a rental inspection program is one step closer to passage after a first reading by the town council on Monday night.

The housing standards ordinance would require rental property owners to undergo regular life and safety inspections to be conducted by members of the Durham Fire Department.

The proposed ordinance was accepted by the town's Rental Housing Commission, but the two landlords on the commission were not present for the vote.

Town administrator Todd Selig said the ordinance was proposed after two serious fires in town last year.

Fire Chief Corey Landry called both fires "close calls" and indicated that if anyone had been home when either fire broke out there could have been a fatality. The homes had inoperable smoke detectors and other life safety problems, Selig said.

Based on those concerns, Selig asked the fire department to work with Roger Hawk of Hawk Planning Resources LLC to develop a housing standards ordinance for consideration by the community.

Durham is home to the University of New Hampshire and has a large number of rental properties.

The ordinance covers all residential properties, to be in line with state statute, but the inspection program is specific to rental properties and seeks to correct dilapidation, dangerous defects that are likely to result in fire, accidents or other calamities, unhealthful lack of ventilation or sanitary facilities or due to other unhealthy or dilapidated conditions.

Every rental property in town would need to be inspected on a two-year cycle to ensure they meet minimum health and safety standards.

Landry said his "target hazards" or highest priorities are single-family homes being used as rentals, as well as rentals they do not know about and properties they have not looked at in a long time.

Landry said he hopes that a majority of properties are not a problem.

"We'll know what we really have within a few months," he said.

If violations persist after more than two inspections, fines of $250 per day may be imposed.

Inspection fees are established in the fire department's existing fee schedule.

Selig said it was his decision to put the fire department in charge of managing the process instead of the town's code enforcement officer, who also handles zoning issues.

The town had previous discussions about adopting an inspection program to get at zoning violations that might exist, but Selig said it was not possible to move forward with that as there was not an existing state statute to allow for it.

"The nexus of this ordinance is 100 percent health and safety related; it's not zoning related, and the problem we run into if we send someone in charged with administering both sets of criteria, it is challenging for that individual to identify only health and safety issues when that person is also charged with managing the zoning side of things," Selig said. "By placing administration of the program with the fire department, the fire department is not burdened with the same issues. They are focused purely on health, life safety issues and that will be the litmus test they use."

The first reading of the ordinance passed by a vote of 7 to 1 with councilor Julian Smith opposing the motion. Councilor Peter Stanhope was absent from the meeting.

A public hearing on the ordinance will be held on Monday, Jan. 7, at 7 p.m. as part of the town council meeting at Town Hall.

Selig said landlords in town have been clear that they do not support an inspection program like the one proposed.

The two landlords on the Rental Housing Commission, Pam Weeks and Paul Berton, could not be reached for comment.

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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at gmacalaster@newstote.com.

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