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Published: Tuesday, 5/1/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Apartments inspected for fire stops

Action is response to Hidden Cedars fatalities

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Holland Crossing Apartments in Maumee, Ohio. Holland Crossing Apartments in Maumee, Ohio.
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A deadly apartment fire in March — and subsequent revelations that the building's attic lacked required fire stops — have prompted Springfield Township fire officials to review more than 250 apartment and condominium buildings to make sure they are in compliance with fire-safety regulations.

The inspections are in response to a March 25 blaze that killed two people at the Hidden Cedars apartment complex on Garden Road. The fire destroyed a three-story, 24-unit building and left about 70 people homeless, including at least 39 children. It was the fourth major fire at the 1970s-era apartment complex in 12 years, but the first to claim lives.

In each case, firefighters bemoaned the lack of fire stops in the buildings' attics. Fire stops are partitions intended to slow the spread of fire and limit its oxygen supply. Without them, flames can travel unencumbered, quickly engulfing an entire building.

Despite concerns, fire officials dismissed the flaw as the consequence of 1970s-era building standards, until The Blade revealed that the 1970 Ohio Building Code did in fact require fire stops for apartment buildings with attics larger 3,000 square feet. All of the buildings at Hidden Cedars exceed 5,000 square feet, and some — including the one that burned down in March — are larger than 10,000 square feet.

It remains unclear why the apartment complex was not required by county officials to install fire stops during construction in 1972. The threshold of 3,000 square feet has been on the books since at least 1948, based on a review historic state and county building codes.

Springfield Township inspectors found fire stops in the
attics at Holland Crossing Apartments on Perrysburg
Holland Road, but noted that some were breached by cable
workers. Officials said the problems were repaired. Springfield Township inspectors found fire stops in the attics at Holland Crossing Apartments on Perrysburg Holland Road, but noted that some were breached by cable workers. Officials said the problems were repaired.
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The Lucas County Building Regulation Department, which is charged with inspecting construction projects in unincorporated Lucas County, has destroyed any plans or permits from the building's original construction. County officials have said they do not maintain such records once all construction permits receive final approval.

The lack of fire stops at Hidden Cedars is raising new concerns about other apartment and condominium complexes throughout Lucas County. The county has nearly 2,000 apartment and condominium buildings built before 1973 that have at least four units, according to the Lucas County auditor's office.

Springfield Township fire officials were concerned enough to begin the daunting task Friday of inspecting 259 buildings at 23 apartment and condominium complexes in their jurisdiction. They've already found two problems.

"What we're going to do is make sure every apartment complex in our area has [fire stops]," said Capt. Dave Bennett, fire inspector for the Springfield Township Fire Department. "We're trying to play a proactive role."

At Hidden Cedars, officials found no fire stops in the complex's four remaining 70s-era buildings, he said. Two other buildings built to replace destroyed structures do have fire stops, he said.

Fire officials also inspected three unoccupied buildings at Holland Crossing Apartments on Perrysburg Holland Road. The buildings there, which are under renovation, had fire stops, but some of them had been penetrated, Captain Bennett said.

Linda Thiel, a spokesman for Cornerstone Managed Properties, which manages the complex, said the company was unaware of the breaches until Friday's inspection.

"There were three units where inspectors identified damage to the firewall on Friday due to previous cable installation work," she said. "A crew of workers are on site and making repairs now. In addition, they are thoroughly inspecting the entire property to ensure that any and all damages are identified and corrected immediately."

Ms. Thiel said she appreciated the Springfield Township Fire Department's efforts. "We're glad they came out," she said. "As a Toledo resident, I'm glad they are doing the checks."

Enforcement at Hidden Cedars is likely to be more difficult, authorities said.

"This is like peeling an onion, for God's sake," said Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi. "Best efforts are being made on everybody's part."

One major hindrance is the lack of original construction paperwork. That could make it hard to prove in court that the buildings are out of compliance.

"There could have been a variance given for whatever reason," said Springfield Fire Chief Barry Cousino.

Another problem is the complex's complicated ownership structure. Each of the 72 units in the remaining 1970s-era buildings are individually owned. Most complexes with multiple owners have a functioning condominium owners' association, but that's not the case at Hidden Cedars, Captain Bennett said. As a result there is no single entity responsible for common areas such as attics, he said.

Bill Swade, one of the largest owners of units at the complex through S&S Investments, disputed Mr. Bennett's assertion that there is no owners association; however, Mr. Swade said the association has no president and he refused to answer questions from The Blade about its structure.

The current state of Hidden Cedars stands in stark contrast to its early reputation as a local hot spot.

The apartment complex opened to much fanfare in 1972. Its developer, the late Walt Zachrich, was an actor who starred in local commercials after gigs on The Dating Game and appearances in films like Eight on the Lam with Bob Hope and the 1969 B-movie Bigfoot.

The Concordia, as the apartment complex was known at the time, was "an extension of its owner's personality," according to a 1972 newspaper article. The $3.5 million development featured handball courts, a swimming pool, a sauna, a large party room, and a fitness center. Mr. Zachrich also planned to install a theater at the complex and to cast apartment-dwellers in plays.

The apartment complex became home to local celebrities, including politician Ned Skeldon, who was often found drinking beer and smoking cigarettes pool-side at the Concordia.

In 1980, the complex was converted to condominiums. Eventually, various limited liability corporations bought many of the units as investment properties.

In 2000, the first major fire struck, followed by two more in 2006 and 2009. Several residents were injured and scores were left homeless.

Lucas County court records paint a troubling picture of the complex's more recent history: legal disputes among owners, allegations of financial mismanagement, and controversies surrounding insurance payouts. Meanwhile, fires have made insuring the remaining buildings nearly impossible, Mr. Swade said. Neither building destroyed by the two most recent fires had insurance, he said.

Even if identifying a responsible party were easier, the physical limitations of the buildings would make installing fire stops nearly impossible, said Capt. Bennett. While the attics are large, they are only eight to 12 inches in height, making it virtually impossible to access the areas where fire stops would need to be installed.

"I don't expect this to be a quick fix or a quick process," Chief Cousino said. "It's been hard enough finding someone to pony up money to take care of the debris [from the March 25 fire]."

As for the broader goal of inspecting other apartment complexes, Captain Bennett said it's a work in progress.

"We have not made a decision about how we are going to handle notification and enforcement yet," he said. "This is relatively new."

Amid concerns about the lack of fire stops, fire officials also continue to juggle the arson investigation. No arrests have been made. Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Division of State Fire Marshal at 1-800-589-2728.

Staff writer Kate Giammarise contributed to this story.

Contact Tony Cook at: tcook@theblade.com, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @tony__cook.



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