July 30, 2008
Code Lapse Seen Before Devastating City Blaze?
By William Kaempffer
By William Kaempffer Register Staff
NEW HAVEN -- The owner of the downtown buildings severely damaged in a December fire now alleges the Fire Department knew a sprinkler system protecting one of the buildings violated state fire code, but allowed a nightclub to open anyway with a promise to fix the problem.
Within a month of opening, fire destroyed the Brass Monkey bar on Center Street and several conjoined buildings -- before the promised repairs were completed, Mid Block Development claims in court documents.
"New Haven allowed the Brass Monkey to open for business despite its knowledge that the leased premises were not in compliance with the fire code," states an administrative appeal filed in Superior Court last week challenging the legality of the city's demolition order.
The new allegations by Mid Block Development are contained in an amended appeal of a city building official's December order that allowed the city to take control of the property as an imminent danger and demolish it against the owner's will. The original appeal was filed in December, but the amended one contains additional claims against the city.
Paul Denz, of Mid Block, declined comment Tuesday. Fire Marshal Joe Cappucci and Building Official Andrew Rizzo said they hadn't seen the amended complaint and referred questions to city attorneys.
It is unknown whether the required changes to the sprinkler system would have made any difference in the outcome of the fire, since the blaze originated in the ceiling above where the sprinkler heads should have been.
The cause has not been determined.
Mid Block maintains that the sprinkler heads, in fact, were hanging 3 feet below the ceiling and a property file in the fire marshal's office confirms that.
A review of the file Tuesday showed that the property at 29 Center St. was inspected in March 2007, when it was the Salty Dog Saloon, and no violations were found. The bar changed hands later that year to the owners of the Brass Monkey.
While the file doesn't contain any subsequent inspection certificates, a report dated Oct. 31, 2007, showed inspectors recommended a new certificate of approval be denied because the sprinkler heads were hanging 3 feet below the ceiling instead of flush against it.
The change was apparently required because someone removed a dropped ceiling in the building.
On Nov. 8, the owners of the bar pledged to "refit and raise to the proper level" the sprinkler heads in half of the bar within 60 days of opening and the rest within 90 days.
Mid Block contends that New Haven was negligent in issuing a certificate of occupancy and a permit to operate a food service business when it knew about the code violation.
"To our knowledge, the sprinkler system was operational as was the fire alarm in the building. While minor corrections needed to be made, they were such that did not pose a danger. A letter was generated by the owners of the bar stating that the start of corrective actions would take place within 90 days," said city spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga.
An official with the state fire marshal's office said Tuesday local marshals have discretion in approving permits and certificates and can take into account a range of factors. It's also not uncommon to allow businesses with violations to remain open, if they have a satisfactory plan to address the problems. That holds for new businesses also, but the threshold usually is higher because it's harder to prove financial duress.
The appeal of the demolition order isn't seeking to undo what is already done -- demolition was completed in January -- but it is seeking to prevent the city from recouping the cost of the demolition. The city has already slapped a $1.85 million lien on the property.
The appeal adds a second new allegation against the city -- that the contractor hired by the city didn't have a proper permit to do the demolition.
Laydon Industries has a class B permit from the state, which would have been insufficient to take down buildings of this size. A message left Tuesday for Jeff Laydon, Laydon Industries owner, was not returned, but in the past both he and Rizzo said that the sister company, Laydon Construction, had the required class A permit.
Messages left for William Laydon, a partner in Laydon Construction, have not been returned.
The fire gutted about a third of the block bounded by Chapel, Church, Center and Orange streets. It destroyed six businesses and doomed a seventh after a girder fell during demolition, rendering it structurally unsound. It was the former site of Kresge variety store.
Both Mid Block and the owner of Concord 9, a Chapel Street jewelry store, appealed the demolition orders. The city is close to settling with the owner of Concord 9 for $1.2 million, including the demolition costs it would absorb.
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