Letter to the Editor: How much leeway should Vermont regulators allow?

A half inch is costing me several thousand dollars.
The town of Middlebury does not have department of inspectional services. I know, I checked. So the town relies on the Vermont Department of Fire Safety to enforce a series of regulations covering egress, in particular stairs.
Over a year ago I fell off the steep steps of my apartment. I lost my balance going up the steps and stepped back, missing the narrow next lower step. I fell backward and did a 180 onto my back, missing the concrete foundation and a recently trimmed tree. Several inches and I would have been seriously injured.
I was 75 years old and felt unsafe. Having borne those narrow, steep stairs for several years it was apparent that I needed to move.
I broke my lease, expecting that the apartment was supremely desirable. It stood vacant for almost a year in a hot real estate marked (“reasonable effort” to re-rent?).
In the next month I requested that the Vermont Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Safety in Rutland take a look at the steps. After watching his assistant fire marshal descend the steps with difficulty, the director told me that he didn’t “… have dog in that fight” and refused to issue a formal opinion.
The Fire Safety Division requirement for tread depth for existing stairs is a minimum of 9 inches. The steps are actually and demonstrably 8-and-a-half inches deep. The assistant fire marshal, citing the regulation, has formally approved the stairs — the ones I have struggled with and from which I fell, expecting to find a lower step.
Landlords are responsible to assure their premises conform to existing standards and regulations. It’s called a Warranty of Habitability.
The steps are old. Are they grandfathered if they fail to conform to current safety regulations, the ones in effect when I first rented? Is the inspecting agency supposed to measure with “wiggle room?” Is a half-inch — 9 percent — an acceptable variance? Is the continued reluctance to correct the findings justified in a submission in Small Claims Court?
This inquiring mind finds the reality frustrating.
Richard Moore

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