Lisbon seeking consensus on rental inspection program

LISBON — For a second consecutive meeting, Councilman Peter Wilson and his colleagues debated the merits of enacting a rental registration and inspection program.

Wilson first raised the issue at council’s Feb. 26 meeting, saying he believes such a program is needed to address the growing number of residential rental properties in town, which he estimates has reached 400. Wilson told council at last week’s meeting he had further discussions with the officials who run Leetonia’s rental inspection program, which charges an annual inspection fee of $20 per rental unit. He favors the $20 fee, with the money used to hire a part-time inspector.

While an inspector would not be state certified, the person would be charged with performing a “basic inspection” to determine whether rentals are clean and have electric and water service, an operating heating system, safe windows and smoke detectors. Each landlord would be required to register with the village, which is how they would keep track of the units needing inspected

Wilson, who had yet to put his plan in writing, said he is trying to avoid a repeat of the November fire that gutted the 208-year-old apartment house on North Market Street that was home to eight renters using portable kerosene and electric space heaters to keep warm. Although the cause of the fire remains undetermined, the state fire marshal concluded the blaze — which claimed the lives of 11 dogs — started in a room where a space heater was being used.

“Most of our landlords are good people, but there are slumlords and more needs to be done,” he said.

Those council members who chose to speak sounded skeptical, with some expressing concern about the village’s role in inspecting private property, and others wondering how the village would go about enforcing the program.

Councilman Jerry Cox says Lisbon risks chasing businesses away with overregulation. This past year council enacted laws requiring property owners in the downtown business district perform basic outside maintenance and to also require those with chronically vacant buildings make some effort to find an occupant or sell the building.

“Too much government just chases people away,” he said.

Some wondered what good it would be to have a rental property inspector who was not certified in electrical and plumbing, with Councilman Jeff Snyder pointing out having a certified inspector raises other issues.

“There isn’t a building downtown that would pass” an electrical code inspection, he said.

Wilson pointed out there is a state law requiring rental properties be kept safe and sanitary, prompting Cox to ask, “So why do we need another law?”

Village Law Director Alec Beech later explained the state law being referenced addressed tenant rights only, not the village’s role in regard to rental properties. Beech said he would like to review the landlord inspection laws in place in other communities in the county.

Fire Chief Paul Gresh Jr. was at the meeting and he said the fire department has the legal authority to perform fire code inspections of commercial properties only. Following the November fire, Gresh had recommended council enact a landlord inspection law to prevent what happened in the future.

“In defense of Pete, the people downstairs had two kerosene heaters,” which raises the potential of CO2 poisoning as well, he said.

Cox pointed out it is not against the law to use a kerosene heater, but Wilson said the people were using space heaters because there was either no heat or insufficient heat in the apartment house.

Councilwoman Dawn Thomas said the tenants may have been using space heaters because it was cheaper.

After more debate, Wilson was asked to provide council with copies of the landlord inspection laws enacted by other communities in the county so they can be in a better position to discuss the issue in the future.



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