Tufaro firm's conduct questioned in Virginia

Fire code violations cited at apartments developed by Summit

October 18, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

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.

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