Bridgeport City Council discussed whether to require safety inspections for all awnings on downtown buildings Monday night.
The discussion came up during a workshop on the regulations for the city’s proposed downtown overlay district.
City Manager Jesica McEachern mentioned that the city had considered regulating awnings before, right after one collapsed in Aug. 2009, killing Bridgeport High School student Leslie Denison. All awnings were visually inspected by a city engineer that year after the incident. McEachern said the council at the time talked about mandatory inspections or required insurance policies for awnings.
“There were lots of things that were talked about, and it ultimately came back to everything would have had a significant cost impact on those merchants, and we were in the middle of recession,” McEachern said. “We really ended up backing off of everything and not doing anything.”
Councilman Kevin Lopez asked if the city engineer could do another visual inspection and then follow up with a structural inspection if he found something concerning, which councilman David Correll agreed with.
City secretary Erika McComis asked if the city would be liable if their engineer inspected an awning and deemed it safe, only for it to collapse later.
“What you should be doing is having your shop owners pay for their own inspections,” city attorney Rob Allibon said, “so you’re not using public tax dollars for the benefit of private businesses.”
Councilman Jimmy Meyers asked if the city staff could inquire what it would cost per business to have an engineer come out for inspections.
“Wait a minute,” Correll said. “I don’t think we’re using tax dollars for the benefit of private property. They’re covering our sidewalks, and we’re responsible for the safety of our citizens.”
“So you’re saying we ought to pay for it?” Meyers asked.
“I think we need to make sure our sidewalks are taken care of,” Correll said, “and if we have a problem, or if we find there is one, we should take action.”
“I’m all for it if it’s attached to our sidewalk,” he said, “but if it’s just overhanging it’s not our responsibility.”
Allibon stepped in to explain that awnings are an encroachment on the city’s right-of-way, and normally encroachments require agreements between the city and the entity doing the encroaching, where the entity doing the encroaching has to take responsibility for the encroachment.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees that there needs to be safety there, we’re just trying to determine who’s going to pay for it,” Lopez said.
Correll said he had a problem with putting additional restrictions and an immediate cost on business owners.
“If you want to safeguard our citizens, then [we] should take care of it,” he said. “My opinion, I stated earlier, we should go through the same process we did before where we identified issues, and those issues we identified, we addressed. And they have been addressed and taken care of, and we haven’t had any problems since.
“But it does need to continue to be addressed.”
Lopez said since building owners have the option to put up an awning or not, if they do have one they need to be held to safety standards.
“I would agree with that,” Correll said. “But those that already have awnings, you can’t tell them to go get a structural engineer report.”
“If it’s overhanging public property [we can],” Lopez responded.
“OK, I disagree with it,” Correll said. “You can agree, and I can get outvoted and disagree. I’m just telling you this is my opinion and this is how I feel about it.”
“Don’t holler about it,” Meyers said to Correll. “Don’t holler at me.”
McEachern reminded the council members the discussion was limited to a workshop and said she could get cost estimates for inspections, both for the city and individual businesses.
Mayor Randy Singleton asked everyone to be cautious about not over-regulating and to not “beat up on our business owners.”
The council decided to discuss awning regulations and what to do about vacant buildings downtown at the next meeting.
- amended an ordinance regarding setback requirements at Bridgeport Airport Estates.
- granted a specific use permit to a property at Bridgeport Industrial Park for a telecommunication antenna.
- approved the city’s audited annual financial report.
- adopted an ordinance to require wrecker services to inform the police department at least 30 minutes before they tow any repossessed vehicles. Chief Steve Stanford said he hopes the ordinances will cut back false vehicle theft reports.