Main Street in Downtown Rockland. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― In past years, Rockland officials have done their best to work with the owners of multi-unit apartment buildings to get issues resolved when code violations are discovered through required inspections during the selling process.

But with a steep increase in the number of apartment buildings that have changed hands in recent years, Rockland fire and code officials say their good will hasn’t been enough to get some property owners to correct the health and life safety issues. That’s why city councilors gave the greenlight Wednesday night to a more aggressive enforcement approach when efforts to work with property owners fall on deaf ears and some might wind up in court.

“I feel like if we’re not willing to take it as far as we can then all of this is a waste of time and we’re not doing the tenants any favors by letting this continue to go this way because as time goes on and this stuff doesn’t get fixed and it gets tucked in a file cabinet somewhere, at some point something bad is going to happen and I’m not going to be on the hook for it. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I sleep good at night,” Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock said.

Since 2010, Rockland has required all buildings with three or more apartments to undergo city inspections before closing when the owner is selling the building.  

Aside from responding to complaints, these inspections are one of the only mechanisms that city officials have for entering these rentals to see if they are in compliance with property, health and safety code requirements, according to Rockland Code Enforcement Officer Wyatt Philbrook.

After conducting the inspections, a violation report is sent to the property owner. The city then works with the owners to come up with a timeline for resolving the issues.

While the inspections are required for a building to be sold, the sale can still go through without the violations being fixed, so sometimes the process involves working with new owners as well.

“It’s not a perfect process at all, obviously, but it’s the best mechanism that we have now for making headway in multi-units,” Philbrook said. “It’s important because the bottom line is about preserving people’s lives and also the quality of their living.”

Prior to 2020, the city was conducting about five of these inspections annually. Since 2020 ― as the real estate market boomed during the pandemic ― the number of annual inspections has increased to about 16. Of the 32 properties that were inspected in the last two years, which all had violations, only four properties have been brought up to code, Philbrook said.

“We’ve dealt with some very proactive landlords who made it very clear from the beginning that they’ve wanted to get these things done and they are making earnest efforts. We’re not talking about these people. I do think there are people that have bought properties in Rockland recently that have no intention of meeting these deadlines in a timely manner if at all, those are the people that we need to talk about,” Philbrook said.

Violations found during these inspections run the gamut, Whytock and Philbrook said, from smoke detectors that need to be replaced to stairwells and windows that are not wide enough to meet fire safety standards.  Depending on the severity of the violations, the city will allow more or less time for remedying the violations.

“We don’t just come in and say ‘Yep, you’ve got 30 days, make it happen.’” Whytock said.

“We’re really flexible, because we know at the end of the day the building is going to be safer when the work is done.”

With fewer inspections, this approach largely worked in the past, Whytock said, since it was more manageable for city staff to repeatedly follow up with landlords on progress. Follow-up inspections have been conducted on the majority of the 32 properties inspected in the last two years, Philbrook said, but less progress has been made on the violations being remedied.

“I kind of feel like our pleases and thank yous have gone a long way for a long time with a lot of property owners,” Whytock said. “I just feel like our kind approach, if you will, is just not being perceived well anymore.”

In previous years, City Manager Tom Luttrell said the City Council has not “had the appetite to take people to court” over code violations. But councilors on Wednesday night said they were in favor of pursuing that route.

City officials discussed beginning to take court action against some of the worst offenders, which they said would hopefully send a message to others who have buildings with violations.

“I’m not averse to litigation especially if it gets the fire in people’s belly that Rockland is taking life safety code, and our residents who are living here, very seriously,” Councilor Lousie McLellan-Ruf said.

The city is also exploring other ways to motivate landlords to act on the violations such as posting violation reports in the common areas of buildings, or flagging the buildings in property records as having violations. Whytock and Philbrook said they would also like to find incentives for the landlords that are making good efforts to bring their buildings into compliance.

“We just have to hold people accountable and if you’re not willing to step up and do the right thing and work with us to make your building safer then I feel like the city just spoke up last night and said we will hold you accountable,” Whytock said.