Fire Marshal Takes Action On Former Hilltop House Hotel Property

Images captured during the September 29 inspection of the former Hilltop House Hotel property at 400 Trinity Drive included in Los Alamos Fire Marshal Wendy Servey’s report. Los Alamos Reporter Screenshot

BY MAIRE O’NEILL
maire@losalamosreporter.com

It looks like Los Alamos County is finally taking action on the condition of the Hilltop House Hotel property at 400 Trinity Drive. Los Alamos Fire Marshall Wendy Servey has issued an order and notice declaring that unsafe conditions exist at the property, which is owned by New Mexico Innovative Triangle, LLC, that are “causing a clear and inimical threat to human life, safety and health”.

The document was posted Monday on the building and sent via certified mail to NMIT’s authorized agents John Rizzo, Larry Hawker and John Mahoney, as well as officials with Enterprise Bank & Trust. The document indicates that Servey’s inspection of the hotel building was conducted September 29 pursued to an inspection order issued by the First Judicial District Court.

Pursuant to the Fire Code, each owner of the property receiving this notice is required to declare immediately to the Fire Marshal their acceptance or rejection of the terms of this code.

According to the document posted by Servey, the September 29 inspection revealed “a hotel structure that remains unsecured where curious and or misguided teenagers and persons without housing have entered the structure and its many nooks and crannies throughout including the higher floors” and is “difficult to secure from entry due to the significant degradation of the windows, doors and other entrance points due to failure to maintain the building”.

Servey noted that there is an enormous amount of combustible material inside the structure, which has no working fire suppression or fire alarm system.

“The inspection revealed an enormous amount of mold due to moisture entering the building from a degraded roof that would likely collapse quickly in a fire. The structure contains a large vertical shaft from the ground to the roof that creates a natural chimney allowing fire to travel quickly to the higher floors and the roof. The floors and walls throughout the structure show a profound level of degradation and disrepair. The walls and floors contain a patchwork of large holes that run vertically and horizontally throughout creating an almost “Swiss cheese” effect throughout the structure,” the document states.

Given those conditions, Servey said the entire hotel structure is a “rapid burning fuel package”.

“A fire in this hotel would rapidly engulf the entire structure. This rapid burning fuel package would most likely produce flying embers that could precipitate other adjacent fires, a wildland fire event and respiratory emergencies for anyone proximity. Any person in one of the higher floors or sequestered away in one of the many nooks and crannies would likely perish in such a fire. Finally, given the catastrophic fire threat, the hotel structure poses, firefighters would not enter this structure during a fire even to save human life  because of the extreme threat this would pose to the life of the firefighter because of the very high potential for structural collapse,” Servey’s report states.

Servey is ordering NMIT to immediately erect and maintain a secure perimeter fence around all structures on the property that is at least eight feet in height and placed not less than 10 feet away from any existing structures there.  All doors including frames must be boarded up for at least the first floor or the owner must have security guard present 24 hours a day until Servey determines that the property no longer presents a clear and inimical threat to human life, safety.

The order requires NMIT to contact the New Mexico Storage Tank Bureau regarding the underground storage tanks on the property and bringing them into compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations.

Any and all construction, alterations, repairs, or removals necessary to complete abatement of existing fire code violations in the hotel structure must be commenced or by March 30, 2022 or the total demolition of the hotel structure must be completed by the same date. NMIT is required to provide Servey all the necessary permits for either the work needed to abate the existing fire code violations or total demolition of the hotel structure by Nov. 24, 2021.

Based on the observations made during the inspection, the document states that apparent required repairs and improvements to the hotel structure include but are not limited: to securing the building, from entry by repairing all entrance points, removing all combustible materials and hazardous materials from the property, bringing the underground storage tanks into compliance, restore and repair the existing fire alarm system, upgrade the fire protection system to a fire sprinkler system due to the size of the structure exceeding12,000 square feet, repair all fire separation and assembly and mitigation of mold.

An evaluation of the structural integrity of the building in order to make all necessary repairs to make the structure safe for future use and safe operations by firefighters in case of a fire will also have to be conducted.

“All this is based solely on the observations made on the Sept. 29 inspection and does not constitute a list of repairs that may be required if other violations are found during additional inspections or additional repairs that may be required by other codes such as the Building Code. Remedying these deficiencies will require additional inspections, plans and approval as prescribed in the County Building and Fire Codes,” the document states.

The Hilltop Spa and the convenience store could not be inspected September 29 because there were no keys and no easy entrance available without causing damage that would only increase the security issues at the property, Servey said.

“However all evidence points to similar IFC violations likely existing in these structures. It would behoove the owners to address any IFC violations in these structures as additional inspections will occur given the overall disrepair of the property and the danger this property poses to the community,” the document states.

Rizzo, who had not yet received the County’s certified letter told the Los Alamos Reporter Wednesday morning that NMIT acquired the Hilltop property a year ago, after years of it being neglected, with the intention of building a well-designed apartment complex to begin to alleviate the acute housing challenges being experienced by County residents and employers.  

“Since that time we’ve been working internally on building design and construction options along with cost estimates and the need for zoning and entitlements,” he said. “Normally we’d get approval for the plans, zoning and entitlements, finance the project and then demolish and begin construction. This is the sequence given the substantial cost to demolish a building and the economic risk if there is no approval to build on a site.”  

Rizzo said NMIT was recently contacted by the Fire Marshal to inspect the building.

“The first attempt to do this was unsuccessful given communication and scheduling problems on our side.  The second attempt at an inspection occurred in late September, as was mutually agreed. With respect to the notice posted on the building we haven’t received a copy nor had any expectation for a notice being posted.   Thus it’s difficult to respond thoughtfully.  Hopefully we’ll get a copy soon,” he said.  

Rizzo said NMIT looks forward to further collaboration with the Fire Marshal and other officials in the City and County.

“The Hilltop site has been languishing for years and we are the first organization who had a vision and rational  plans to finally turn the gateway into Los Alamos something we can all be proud of.  We look forward to making that a reality and working constructively and practically with all involved.  Hilltop is not a problem we created but we are surely intent on solving it,” he said. 

County Manager Steve Lynne said Wednesday afternoon that the first thing is the County very much wants development to occur.

“We continue to talk to NMIT and they continue to indicate that they plan to do some development there. That’s our long-term goal and desire and hope for this property. Having said that, there’s a more immediate concern and it’s expressed very clearly in the Fire Marshal’s report, which is that this structure is a hazard,” he said.

Lynne noted that under the Fire Marshal’s report, there are certain requirements that are laid out and certain resolutions that could occur under a different process. Those resolutions are on the agenda for a County Council special Oct. 29 session. Councilors are expected to address what’s called the “clean and lien” process under which the state law allows the governing body of a municipality to pass a resolution that a “ruined, damaged and dilapidated” building structure or any premise “covered with ruins, rubbish, wreckage or debris” is a “menace to the public comfort, health, peace or safety” and require its removal.  

Under state law, the governing body of a municipality may by resolution find that such a building is a menace to the public comfort, health, peace or safety and require its removal. After a lengthy process, the governing body may end up for example, demolishing a building and placing a lien on the property for the cost.