Steamboat’s practices typical
Complaint-based enforcement is the norm for secondary units
June 24, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Other Colorado mountain communities take the same approach as the city of Steamboat Springs when it comes to policing what are commonly referred to as secondary or accessory dwelling units: Unless a complaint is made, they don’t.
And in communities such as Durango, the residences – self-contained apartments on the same lot as a single-family home – aren’t even legal.
Steamboat Springs resident David Engle died of smoke inhalation last week after a grease fire ignited in his converted garage apartment at 705 Pine St. Although Steamboat development codes allow for apartments such as Engle’s if owners apply, meet requirements and pay a $50 fee, the converted garage was not registered as a legal residence with the city and had no smoke detectors.
Codes adopted by the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County have required smoke detectors since at least 1976, said Carl Dunham, director of the Routt County Regional Building Department. If the apartment had gone through the city’s secondary unit permit process – created in 2001 – it would have been required to meet fire safety codes, including having a working smoke detector.
Some, including Steamboat Springs City Council members Cari Hermacinski and Steve Ivancie, have called for increased enforcement in the wake of Engle’s death. The city does not actively pursue unregistered secondary units unless a complaint is made. Although Hermacinski said Friday that upping enforcement could save lives, Director of Planning and Community Development Tom Leeson said Friday that aggressively policing secondary units would “be pretty time intensive for not a great return.”
Planning officials across the Western Slope agree.
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The bottom line
Although several communities have adopted codes governing secondary units to help ensure their safety, none have moved beyond a complaint-based system to enforce those codes.
“It’s pretty hard to rattle them up on your own,” said Warren Campbell, chief of planning in Vail. “It really does take a complaint. Driving down the street : it’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on.”
Vail does not have any codes that allow a secondary unit on the same lot as a principal, single-family dwelling unit. However, the town does have provisions that allow for the construction of an employee-housing unit in most zone districts, Campbell said.
Aspen and Breckenridge have a land-use code more similar to Steamboat’s, which allows secondary units if they meet criteria that include size limitations as well as occupancy and parking requirements. In Breckenridge, the Accessory Apartment Covenant governs the units. Aspen’s land-use code includes a section titled Accessory Dwelling Units and Carriage Houses.
Enforcement is complaint-based in Aspen, Community Development Director Chris Bendon said. Bendon said Aspen has not experienced any scares in recent years similar to Engle’s death. But oddly enough, the accessory dwelling unit program was created decades ago after a woman died in a fire in an illegal apartment. After the woman’s death, the city decided to recognize the value of such units and created codes to permit and regulate them.
Bendon said the units play a vital role as part of Aspen’s stock of affordable housing.
“They’re dispersed throughout the neighborhoods,” Bendon said. “They’re built in a way that doesn’t scream affordable housing.”
Bendon said registering an accessory dwelling unit or carriage house in Aspen is a simple administrative procedure; Leeson has said the same of the process in Steamboat. Both planning officials believe most of their secondary residential units are legal. But the level of enforcement is similar even in a city like Durango, where there are no regulations in place to allow such units.
“They don’t take priority,” Planning Director Greg Hoch said. “It’s done when we find out.”
Hoch said vacation home rentals and signage garner the most complaints and are thus the biggest enforcement issues for his department. Hoch said the city has discussed adopting codes governing secondary units from time to time, including once after someone was almost killed by a fire in a basement apartment accessed through a trap door.
“The city’s explored them in the past, but they’ve frequently become controversial, particularly in our older neighborhoods,” Hoch said. “We don’t have any rules in place to legalize them.”
Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said Monday that she “can’t imagine the staff it would require” to aggressively seek out illegal secondary units.
“It keeps coming back to the bottom line,” Mitsch Bush said. “How do you pay for it?”
While Engle’s death has sparked an interest in upping enforcement, Mitsch Bush said she imagines there would be an even greater outcry if property owners were subjected to regular inspections by code enforcement officers in search of illegal apartments.
Commissioner Doug Monger said in Routt County, regular inspections are performed only on high-profile use permits, such as gravel pits and oil and gas operations.
Monger thinks the city of Steamboat Springs is taking too much of a beating in the wake of Engle’s death and that there should be more calls for personal responsibility rather than increased enforcement by the government.
“We get off way too easy putting the blame on the government,” Monger said. “We all have to take personal responsibility. I have some rentals, and I know for certain they don’t have smoke detection. I’m going to get them in there as soon as possible.”
Although Engle’s death was unfortunate, Dunham said, it has brought attention to the issue and has resulted in responses such as Monger’s. Dunham cited a Johns Hopkins University study that found a smoke detector could have prevented 75 percent of residential fire deaths and 84 percent of residential fire injuries. Dunham urged anyone with smoke detector questions to call their fire department.
Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg, who confirmed Engle’s cause of death Thursday, said a toxicology report still is pending.
“Not yet today,” Ryg said Monday. “Hopefully tomorrow.”