Tufaro firm's conduct questioned in Virginia; Fire code violations cited at apartments developed by Summit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The development company run by David F. Tufaro, Baltimore's Republican candidate for mayor, received notices of violation in 1995 for failing to obey fire codes in the construction of three apartment complexes in the Richmond, Va., area, one of which was substantially damaged in a fire that year.

According to reports from fire departments in Virginia, the code violations were discovered during a rare regional investigation prompted by the blaze at Old Buckingham Station Apartments in Midlothian. That fire destroyed 58 apartments, displaced 100 residents and caused more than $4 million damage.

The mid-Atlantic branch of Summit Properties Inc., based in Baltimore, of which Tufaro was managing general partner and an owner, settled two lawsuits in 1995 and 1996 that had been filed by renters who lost everything they owned, including the wedding ring of a resident's late husband and a half-written novel. Tufaro resigned from Summit Properties in July to run for mayor.

The parties would not disclose the amount of the settlements, but said the total exceeded $1 million.

As Tufaro runs for Baltimore's highest office, the fire code violations could raise questions about his attention to detail as a manager and whether he might have cut corners to save money.

In Chesterfield County, Va., fire officials cited the lack of fire walls and fire partitions called "draft stops" at the Old Buckingham complex. Fire officials in Henrico County and in Richmond found problems with missing or incomplete fire partitions in two other apartment complexes built by Tufaro's company.

Tufaro, a lawyer who holds a master's degree in city planning, said he builds his apartments to award-winning standards. He said the fire code violations cited by Richmond-area officials were either minor or wrong.

He said Chesterfield County officials who investigated the fire misread his company's building plans, failed to interview him and issued a report with "very serious errors" -- a contention that county officials dispute.

A developer's role

As developer of the 360-unit apartment complex, Tufaro said his role included obtaining loans and approving such things as the type of brick, color of stucco and style of kitchen cabinets, but not technical construction details such as draft stops and fire walls.

"I am not a technical person," Tufaro said. "I don't review building codes. We hire professionals for that." He said he relied on contractors and county building inspectors to make sure the apartments met fire codes.

"I have been involved in or developed on the order of 8,000 apartments, which house approximately 14,000 people, literally the equivalent of a decent-size town," Tufaro said. "There are bound to be instances in which the contractors do not follow the plans 100 percent. But one has to look at the overall track record of success."

Tufaro said that Builder magazine, published by the National Association of Homebuilders, named Old Buckingham its project of the year in 1989 -- the only time an apartment complex has won the award.

The fire at the complex of luxury apartments was notorious in the Richmond area. According to fire officials, it started when a 17-year-old resident draped a shirt over an exterior light on the wall of the building to stop it from shining in his window at night.

No residents were injured, but the fire caused more damage than any other in suburban Chesterfield history and led to a lawsuit against the county in which residents alleged an improper investigation and conflict of interest. The residents' appeal in the case is to be heard Thursday by the Virginia Supreme Court.

The lawyer for the residents, Debra D. Corcoran of Richmond, said Tufaro's company saved about $1 million by not building enough fire walls -- a failing that allowed flames to rush through the building.

"I'd hate to live in any apartment building in Baltimore if he were elected," said Corcoran. "You want someone in office who will follow the rules and not bend them. These laws are meant to protect people."

In response to a question, Manuel Rosado, 25, a former resident of the apartments, said that Tufaro's responsibility in the fire is a legitimate election issue.

"Even if [Tufaro] were to say, 'I wasn't aware of the violations,' the responsibility is still there to make sure everything is built the right way," said Rosado. "Either he was purposefully cutting corners, or he was not concerned or involved enough to look at what was going on underneath him."

Tufaro said, "There is no evidence whatsoever of Summit having cut corners." He said his former tenants had a motive for suing him: Almost all of them failed to get the renters' insurance required by their leases.

He said it was the responsibility of the county's building department to point out fire code violations before tenants moved in in 1989.

William Dupler, director of building inspections for Chesterfield County, said he did not know why his department missed the fire code violations before it issued building and occupancy permits.

"I wasn't working here then, and I don't know why the problems weren't found," said Dupler, who said the error could have involved a misreading of architectural plans.

Report on Old Buckingham

A report June 9, 1995, by the Chesterfield Fire Department concluded that the Old Buckingham fire spread with unusual speed and caused an "unacceptable" amount of damage, in part because the builders failed to construct fire walls, as required by law in a central building.

The builders also didn't install enough fire-slowing partitions in the attic of the apartment complex, the report said. Missing were several draft stops, thin walls of plaster or wood meant to slow the rush of smoke, hot air and flames through parts of the building that are out of sight of residents or firefighters.

The Old Buckingham complex was one of the first in the area to install a sprinkler system, which was not required by law. Tufaro said he installed it after the county fire chief asked him to do so.

The sprinklers may have helped save the lives of residents, but the fire caused "higher than expected" property loss for several reasons, according to the fire report.

The fire started on the light and crept up the outside walls, out of the reach of sprinklers, the report said. Flames fanned by a 10 mph wind melted the vinyl siding of the apartments and burned the wall sheathing underneath.

A resident who smelled a suspicious odor about 1: 15 a.m. went to bed instead of calling the Fire Department.

While the main building had some fire-slowing partitions in the attic, "the building was constructed with fewer draft stops than were required," the report said, and "should have been constructed with fire walls."

"County officials are now working with the owners of Old Buckingham Station so that the reconstruction of the [central] lodge building will include enhanced fire protection," read the report, which was signed by Chesterfield County Fire Chief Robert L. Eanes, who retired in 1996.

The current Chesterfield County fire chief, Stephen Elswick, who helped investigate the fire, said a team of top county officials performed a thorough and professional investigation.

"We feel that it is an accurate report," said Elswick. "We made a determination that the extent of the damage was due to the lack of draft stops. We tried to stay away from placing blame on anyone -- the builder, the architect or the county. But what was obvious is there were not draft stops in place."

Paul Shorter, the county's deputy fire chief, said he considered the Old Buckingham apartments generally safe because they had sprinklers that worked. But he said the lack of fire-slowing partitions was a significant issue.

"Obviously, if they had their draft stops in place, it would have limited the spread of the fire," said Shorter. "But I don't look at them as being bad landlords. There were a lot of unfortunate factors involved in this fire."

Similar problems found

After the fire, officials examined dozens of apartment complexes in the Richmond area and found similar problems in two others developed by Tufaro's company.

At the 250-unit Stony Point Apartments on Stony Lake Drive in Richmond, city engineer Carey L. Gresham Jr. found on Aug. 17, 1995, "serious problems" with missing and damaged draft stops in the attic of the building, according to city records.

"I would regard this as a major problem," Richmond Deputy Fire Marshal Russ Acors said in an interview. "Without the draft stops, a fire would spread far more rapidly than the building was designed to handle."

At the 300-unit Breckenridge Apartments on Racquet Club Court in Henrico County, a June 28, 1995, inspection found that the fire-slowing partition in the attic was 6 inches to 8 inches short of the ceiling, according to county records.

Henrico County Fire Chief Mark Light said that after the Old Buckingham fire, his department checked hundreds of apartments and found problems with fire partitions only at the Summit-developed complex.

The managers of these apartment complexes repaired the problems after they received violation notices.

Ken Schoonover, vice president of codes and standards for the Chicago-based Building Administrators and Code Administrators International, said it is dangerous for buildings to lack fire-slowing partitions.

"It is absolutely important to build what is required by the building code," said Schoonover. "Fire walls and draft stops are required by the building code because they form an integral part of the overall fire protections that are required to be built into a structure."

Personal losses

Former residents of the Old Buckingham apartments are still angry about the fire. Some, along with members of their families, blame the developer.

David Peek, 56, said he remembered running to the building where his mother lived and seeing it engulfed in flames rising 30 to 40 feet into the air.

"It reminded me of a scene from one of those old war films [in] 'The World at War,' when London was being bombed, and you had all these trucks pouring water into a huge fire," Peek said.

His mother, Theryl Peek, got out safely, but was distraught because she lost her engagement ring, which she had taken off because of swelling in her fingers, and the wedding ring of her husband who was deceased.

Beatriz Rosado, a 44-year-old Spanish professor at Virginia State University and mother of Manuel Rosado, said she lost 100 pages of a novel she was writing and 20 years' worth of research for a book about women in Latin American politics.

"Oh my goodness, this man is running for mayor?" said Beatriz Rosado. "Did he know about the violations? What does this say about his principles? This fire was a terrible thing, and it destroyed the lives of a lot of people."

Supreme Court case

While the lawyers and insurance companies for Tufaro's company had settled the lawsuits against Summit by 1996, an appeal in the residents' $14.3 million lawsuit alleging that the county mishandled its fire investigation is to be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday.

In the lawsuit, tenants claimed that their chances for a large judgment against Tufaro's company were hurt because a fire investigator allegedly destroyed evidence -- a light bulb -- that could have implicated the building managers.

In the lawsuit and in an interview, Corcoran, their lawyer, said an assistant fire marshal, Richard W. Coffey, also worked for a private fire investigation firm that performed work for the Travelers Insurance Co., which insured Tufaro's company. That conflict of interest damaged their prospects for compensation, she alleged.

In October last year, Chesterfield Circuit Court Judge William R. Shelton threw out the lawsuit against the county, citing lack of evidence. The tenants appealed that decision.

County attorney Steven L. Micas said the allegations of destruction of evidence and conflict of interest are false.

"The reason the trial judge threw out the case is that there is no evidence to support these claims," Micas said.

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