Duckler: In Pittsfield, Article 31 will heat things up

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/2/2019 11:06:30 PM

They’re called risers, and they have nothing to do with getting out of bed in the morning.

Risers, I’ve learned, are those barriers, perhaps rectangular pieces of wood, that fill the spaces between steps, eliminating the chance that a child will fall through and get hurt.

But there’s more to learn before Pittsfield’s first-ever SB2 meeting Monday night at 7 in the Pittsfield Elementary School gym. The issue is getting a, well, rise out of some people in town.

Currently, the Housing Standards Agency, or HSA, an entity that exists under the Housing Standards Ordinance (HSO), supervises fire code standards in town. That ordinance calls for risers on new apartment buildings but leaves existing apartments, built before the statute was adopted, alone.

Or does it? More on that later.

The HSO will be replaced by State Rental Standards if Article 31 – inserted by voters’ petition – is passed. Some people think this is a good idea, as is illustrated by the signatures – 25 were needed to add Article 31 to the town warrant – gathered by Brandon Giuda. Others in town secured lots of names as well.

Giuda is a Chichester native and Pittsfield High School graduate. He’s also a lawyer in town and a landlord, and he doesn’t want to add those pain-in-the-neck risers to the steps at one of his buildings.

That building was already there when these rules surfaced, he pointed out, meaning it’s an existing building. He should be exempt.

Also, every other municipality in the state beyond Pittsfield and Manchester – 232 of them – falls under the jurisdiction of the state regulations, Giuda told me.

And, subjectively speaking, Giuda says those spaces between steps pose no threat to kids, plus the HSA, led by administrator Kim Simonds, has targeted him unfairly over the years.

“I am a responsible apartment owner,” Giuda told me. “For years I’ve been getting nitpicked by the HSA about stupid things. This year I just said I’m taking a stand.”

He sought an exemption from the HSA and was rejected. So he appealed to the select board and got Article 31 on the town warrant.

Reached by phone, select board chair Jim Allard said changing from a local to state ordinance had been in the planning stages for some time, before Giuda showed up. The board has wanted to create regulations for home owners as well as people who lease, and the new statute will do that.

“We are more or less a standalone among towns of New Hampshire,” Allard said. “We would move into the direction of being like everyone else and have a single office to do it all.”

Try telling that to people like Simonds, Jesse Pacheco, the town’s building inspector, and firefighter/EMT Eric Nilsson, the former housing standards inspector. Yes, Simonds says, switching will eliminate her position and the HSA, a fact that undoubtedly will be cited during Monday’s meeting as her main reason for fighting Giuda.

But, she added, it’s only 10 hours per week at $12 an hour, and her role is valuable, allowing residents to contact her for all sorts of problems, like bugs and lack of heat. Inspections are mandatory every two years, which would ensure that fire extinguishers and smoke detectors were working, exits weren’t blocked by junk and so forth. She worries the state code lacks teeth.

For example, NH RSA 48-A:14 does not specifically mention that smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are mandatory. There’s nothing that says apartments need to be checked for code violations every two years. Risers are not required, and Simonds believes that without them, kids are, in fact, in danger.

“If this passes and I have a complaint, they’ll have to go to the selectmen, and who is going to answer the phone there?” Simonds asked. “Or if you call the fire department, they’re already busy enough without dealing with people’s complaints.”

She continued: “Even if the landlord has smoke detectors, tenants take them down, and if you never have inspections, that will keep happening.”

“She is 100 percent right,” added Pacheco. “If you take the HSA away, what happens then? The HSA goes every two years for inspections. So now you get rid of it, who does it? The only time an inspection will happen is if there is a complaint, and then who’s going to do it? The fire department? With all the jobs they have already?”

I brought this ammo to Giuda and Allard. The lawyer said the HSA was overstepping its boundaries, poking its nose where it didn’t belong.

“The HSA has authority only over uninhabited apartments,” Giuda said.

Both noted that building codes already in place allowed Giuda to leaves the stairs as they were.

“Normally we would not be involved in this,” Allard said. “In this case the HSA was, in our opinion, applying a change to the building code that applies to a new structure, not his structure. If you’re setting out to build today, we would apply that standard.”

So I took that nugget of information to those on the other side of the fence. Pacheco and Nilsson were ready. They said a grandfather clause had no merit here because Pittsfield had also adopted rules created by the International Building and Fire Codes.

Pacheco had documentation. A section in the International Fire Code, addressing risers, said space between steps is allowed for openings four inches or less. The gap on Giuda’s staircase is seven inches, Nilsson pointed out.

And a clause in the International Building Code said existing material in compliance at the time of construction can remain, “unless determined by the code official to be detrimental to life, health or safety.”

Pacheco, Nilsson and Simonds see a threat.

Said Giuda, “Have you ever heard about a child getting hurt that way?”

In the end, voters will choose. To repeal or not to repeal. That is the question. Mandatory two-year inspections are not listed in the state ordinance. Risers are not mentioned either.

“We could add provisions to whatever is new,” Allard said.

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