July 17, 2008

Fire Chief Refutes Developer’s Negligence Claim

By William Kaempffer, New Haven Register, Conn.

Jul. 17--NEW HAVEN -- The fire chief Wednesday blasted allegations by a downtown property owner that negligence by his department and other city agencies may have somehow contributed to the severity of a massive December fire as "totally outrageous, insulting, incorrect and inaccurate."

The city Wednesday at a press conference disputed the claims Mid Block Development made in new court documents filed in Superior Court last week. One claim was that city inspectors last October knew the sprinkler system in the building where the blaze began violated the state fire code, but let the Brass Monkey, a new bar, open anyway.

Fire destroyed a third of a downtown block Dec. 12.

Fire Chief Michael Grant called Mid Block's assertions not only "demeaning to the New Haven Fire Department," but emphatically wrong.

First, he said, because the occupancy capacity of the bar was 269, the building didn't even require a sprinkler system under state fire safety code. The threshold for required sprinklers is a 300-person occupancy.

Second, he said, because the fire started in a void between the ceiling and the roof, the system would not have made any difference, whether it was retrofitted or not.

"Had the sprinkler system been redesigned and brought up flush to the existing ceiling, again, the fire would have been above the sprinkler system thus negating its operation, and there would have been no water from the sprinkler system put on the fire from the area above," Grant said.

City officials said Wednesday that a fire inspector's recommendation that the city not approve Brass Monkey's health certificate based, in part, on the out-ofcode sprinkler system was made before he knew the occupancy limit didn't require one.

Owners of the Brass Monkey bar nonetheless agreed to retrofit the sprinkler heads, hanging three feet below the ceiling, to be flush.

The Mid Block allegations were made in an amended appeal to city Building Official Andrew Rizzo's December emergency order that allowed the city to take control of the property after the fire and have the fire-damaged building razed. The city later put a $1.8 million lien on the parcel to cover the costs.

Paul Denz, managing partner of Mid Block, had opposed the demolition order from the start, and has accused the city of pushing forward with the demolition in violation of his rights as the owner, even after the imminent danger to the community was over.

In letters sent to the city as demolition progressed, he urged, and at times cautioned, them to take step back and let his engineers assess the property.

He did not respond to a message left seeking comment Wednesday.

The city last week settled a lawsuit filed by a business owner of another property that survived the fire but was doomed when a girder fell in an adjoining building, at a cost of about $1.2 million.

The city purchased the nowrazed property at 848 Chapel St. for $700,000 and absorbed another $500,000 in costs associated with that demolition, said John Ward, the city's corporation counsel.

Of Mid Block's claims, Ward said, "This case, there's no merit to it. We will defend it vigorously."

He said to his knowledge there were no settlement talks underway with Denz.

The other issue raised by Denz was the demolition license of the company hired by the city to take down the buildings.

Laydon Industries has a "Class B" permit with the state that allows it to take down buildings up to 25 feet in height and, according to Mid Block, a portion of the property exceeded that.

The licensing issue has prompted speculation that an under-qualified contractor might have contributed to the girder falling, an idea Rizzo has consistently dismissed.

He said Laydon Industries brought in Manafort Construction as a subcontractor, which has the higher, Class A license, to handle anything beyond its level of certification.

In the past, he also noted Laydon Construction, a company operated by Laydon Industries owner Jeff Laydon's father, had a Class A permit.

A lawyer for Laydon Construction Wednesday said neither that company nor any of its employees were involved with the demolition.

A message left with Manafort Construction Wednesday was not returned. At the press conference, Rizzo said he didn't know the exact date Manafort was brought in.

The city has consistently defended its decision to demolish the property, and Rizzo said owners who take over a demolition project often "put it off and it takes longer to come down." He said he was concerned that might happen here.

The property is bounded by Chapel, Orange, Center and Church streets, in the heart of downtown, a block from the New Haven Green in one direction, and the Shartenberg site, the biggest development project in the city in decades, in the other.

"It was my responsibility to make sure that the safety and welfare of the public ... was addressed by the removal of these buildings, which I considered to be unsafe and in danger of collapse," Rizzo said. "I felt that once I started, I had to follow it through."


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