NORWAY — Voters may be asked to approve a revised rental occupancy ordinance that officials say will, in part, tighten up its enforcement and reduce the town’s court costs.

Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman said it became clear that some revisions to the ordinance were necessary as she sat for hours in Oxford County Superior Court getting an injunction to stop a Main Street landlord from renting his unsafe apartments.

The town’s attorney filed for an injunction late last year against Patrick McInnis of 168 Main St., after inspections revealed serious life and safety issues in his apartment building.

Town Manager David Holt said the case cost the town about $6,000. It took months to resolve, as town officials attempted to work with the landlord and to bring McInnis to court in order to protect him and his tenants.

“I know Joelle and I have worried about the cost, but as bad as I might feel about that, I would feel worse if someone were injured in a fire and we had not taken action after the owner did not correct the problems identified,” Holt said.

Although the 2012 revisions required annual inspections of all apartment units by the town, there was no enforcement mechanism to easily let the town remove tenants for their own safety if they chose not to leave. The ordinance only allows the code enforcement officer to revoke an occupancy permit for violations of state and local plumbing, structural inadequacy, the presence of a nuisance or electrical fire and other safety codes. 

Under the proposed amendments, Corey-Whitman said the ordinance will allow the code enforcement officer to condemn a building or go to court to get an injunction to prevent rental or occupancy of unsafe units.

Under the proposal, the Planning Board will no longer need to sign off on the revocation of an occupancy permit, a move that will speed up the process and safeguard tenants.

Corey-Whitman is also suggesting that landlord appeals to the Appeals Board be deleted so aggrieved landlords can take the matter directly to the Superior Court, if they choose.

The proposed amendments also make the landlord liable for all attorney and court costs.

Holt said the hope is that town costs will be reduced in future cases, should there be a need to bring a landlord to court.

The changes in the town’s 1993 rental occupancy ordinance were made last year after a 2011 Maine State Housing Authority internal investigation found its agent for Section 8 housing, Avesta Housing of Portland, failed to identify numerous safety issues during local apartment inspections.

The 2012 revised rental occupancy ordinance has been met with some concern by a few landlords who feel the inspection process has become cumbersome.

“Really (there are) no complaints with the meat of our ordinance, but grumblings about how many inspections are done for the apartments in town that are Section 8,” Corey-Whitman said.

Jon Belanger, who owns apartment units at 247 and 485 Main St., recently called the ordinance a “knee-jerk reaction” to problems in local Section 8 rental units that were exposed in 2011. Belanger told the Planning Board in January that he believes the revised ordinance creates redundancy in the inspection process and a financial hardship.

Units must be inspected annually, and a $25 fee paid for the code enforcement officer to issue an occupancy permit.

Belanger said at $25 each, the inspections can add up to a lot of money for multiple units. Additionally, he said the state also requires at least two annual inspections for Section 8 units, which he does have. His insurance agency also inspects his properties, he said.

Corey-Whitman said she does not disagree with what Belanger is saying.

“My (town) inspection of a Section 8 unit could be the third or fourth in one year for one Section 8 voucher held unit,” she said in an email to the Sun Journal. “Since MSHA (Maine State Housing Authority) does not share inspection results with the Town(s), I have no way of knowing when or how often a unit is inspected. It’s frustrating to landlords … and tenants to have one more inspector amble through their living spaces.”

The next step to revise the ordinance is to have the Board of Selectmen review the changes, Corey-Whitman said. If the board agrees, the revised ordinance will be put before voters at a special town meeting or at the annual town meeting in June.

Corey-Whitman said a number of people helped her on the revisions, including two residents, the town attorney, the Planning Board and selectmen. She also took into account comments from landlords, whose properties she inspected this past year.

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