BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Councilors voted 6-0 Friday to uphold their “Clean and Lien” Resolution that requires the demolition and removal of the Hilltop House property by Mar. 30, 2022. Councilor Sara Scott was not present.
The vote took place following a hearing that took most of the afternoon and was followed by a closed session of Council to deliberate on the issue. Owners of the property, New Mexico Innovation Triangle, LLC, (NMIT) had filed an objection to the resolution but no basis for the objection was revealed during the hearing.
Los Alamos Fire Department Fire Marshal Wendy Servey testified extensively about her concerns regarding the condition of the Hilltop House property, at one point stating, “Every night I hope that nothing happens”.
NMIT’s attorney Karl Sommer brought a witness, Paul Santillanes, a general contractor and developer, who responded to questions from Sommer and Councilors indicating that discussions have only begun in the last few weeks on how to address the issues in the October 18 Fire Marshal’s Order, which is a separate matter to the Clean and Lien Resolution. Although pursuant to the Fire Code, each owner of the property who received Servey’s notice was required to declare to her immediately their acceptance or rejection of the terms of the order, Servey testified that there had been no contact with her from NMIT.
Servey’s order requires 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. She ordered 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 she determines that the property no longer presents a clear and inimical threat to human life and safety. The order requires NMIT to bring the underground storage tanks on the property into compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations.
Although Servey’s order required NMIT to provide her with all the necessary permits for either the work needed to abate the existing fire code violations or the total demolition of the hotel structure by November 24, as of Friday’s hearing, no permits had been pulled by NMIT or its contractors. It appeared that only very preliminary discussions have begun with the County’s building department, mostly about the required fencing of the property which Santillanes and Sommer stated will begin Monday, Dec. 6.
When Councilors ended their closed session, Council Chair Randall Ryti stated that NMIT is not seeking any changes to the Clean and Lien Resolution, but that NMIT was seeking relief from the Fire Marshal. He said Servey had indicated a willingness to work with NMIT.
“I also want to express that Council is very disturbed that the appellant (NMIT) is not following the Fire Marshal’s Order and lastly, we want to indicate that we fully support the Fire Marshal enforcing this order with whatever methods necessary,” Ryti said.
Los Alamos County Attorney Alvin Leaphart read a proposed Council order on the Clean and Lien resolution which noted that the Fire Marshal has the subject matter expertise of the International Building Code 2021 as adopted in Article II, Chapter 22 of the County’s Code of Ordinances and the Council is “persuaded by her expert and credible testimony as well as the supporting photographs and reports showing the condition of the Hilltop House that the Hilltop House is in violation of all the sections of the International Fire Code stated in Paragraph 6 of the Fire Marshal’s October 18 order”.
Leaphart said based on the “expert and credible testimony” of the Fire Marshal, the Council is persuaded that the following statement contained in paragraph 7 of the Fire Marshal’s Order, is a true and accurate description of the current state of the Hilltop House:
“In essence the inspection revealed that the Hilltop House structure remains unsecure for curious and/or misguided teenagers and persons without housing have entered the structure and its many nooks and crannies throughout including the higher floors. The inspection reveals a structure that 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. The inspection reveals an enormous amount of combustible material inside a structure that has no working fire suppression or fire alert 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 a fire to travel quickly to the higher floors and roof. The floor and walls throughout the structure show a profound level of degradation and disrepair. The walls and floors contain a patchwork of large holes going vertically and horizontally throughout creating an almost Swiss cheese effect throughout the structure.
“Given the particulars outlined above and more particular in the report, the entire hotel structure is a rapid burning fuel package. A fire in this hotel would rapidly engulf the entire structure. This rapidly burning fuel package would most likely produce flying embers that would most likely precipitate other adjacent fires, a wildland fire event and respiratory emergencies for anyone in proximity. Any person in one of the higher floors or sequestered away in any of the nooks and crannies would likely perish in such a fire. Finally given the catastrophic fire threat the hotel poses, firefighters would not enter the structure 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.”
Leaphart read from Council’s order, “Based on the above uncontested evidence, Council finds the Hilltop House is in fact a menace to the public comfort, health, peace and safety of this community that must be demolished and removed from Los Alamos County in due haste. Therefore, the New Mexico Innovation Triangle, LLC’s objection is not well taken and the resolution shall be enforced, meaning the hotel structure must be removed by Mar. 30, 2022”.
Council voted to approve the order and authorized Chair Ryti to sign it and enter it into the record of the decision. ther authorize the Chair to sign the order and enter the written order into the record of this decision.
Councilor Sean Williams said he would like to clarify a couple of things for the public and the press.
“There are in fact two orders that are going on more or less simultaneously. There’s the Fire Marshal’s Order and there’s the Clean and Lien Resolution and this hearing is only about the Clean and Lien Resolution and the only thing specified really, within this, is the demolition of the Hilltop House by Mar. 20, 2022, so relief on the matter of the fence or the security guard or the removal of combustible material is not germane to the resolution. That’s outside the scope of what’s even being discussed here,” he said.
Williams noted that Santillanes testified that it is feasible for NMIT to demolish the Hilltop House by Mar. 30, 2022,
“So given that and the limited scope of the hearing that’s actually being conducted, there doesn’t actually seem to be any substantial objection and so to me, this whole matter is uncontested and upholding the Clean and Lien Resolution is the obvious thing for the Council to do,” he said.