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Huge electric bill leads to code conflict over basement living space

20 Bliss Road in Newport_302443

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — When Laura Smith got her first electric bill in her new apartment she wondered why it was so expensive, with no idea she was also paying for the power used by the tenant in the basement.

“I was new to the area, so I started asking if that was just the way it was here,” Smith said.

Then she received a letter from National Grid stating she was using 85 percent more energy than other electric customers.

So, Smith went to her landlord, Stephanie Pires, who lives on the first floor and is also Newport’s Zoning and Inspections Clerk.

“She kind of brushed me off and just said here are some ways you can conserve on electricity,” Smith said.

But Smith noticed there were two service meters on the building that was home to her, the landlord, and a tenant in the basement. At that point, the relationship with Pires soured.

“I approached her about it in January and she got an attorney involved when I put it in writing that I wanted it looked into and it went from there,” Smith said.

According to an email from Pires to Smith, two electricians later determined the basement area and exterior lighting were on Smith’s electric bill.

“That matter was concluded and resolved today,” Pires wrote.

A letter from one of the electricians stated, “corrective action was taken to remove the circuits which were not part of the second floor.”

Pires also said in the email that she lived on the second floor after buying the property in 2003, until recently moving to the first floor.

Newport Building Official William Hanley, who works in the same Newport city department as Pires, said the type of electrical work that was done in his coworker’s building does require a permit. But he said there was no record that Pires’ electrician pulled a permit to change her wiring.

The electrical issue raised questions about whether or not the basement was a legal living space. Hanley said a zoning officer from his department asked him to check the area to determine if it was up to code.

The building code requires an exit in a sleeping area that could be either a door to the outside or a 4.4 square-foot window that cannot be more than 44 inches off the floor. Hanley said he didn’t measure the window or the distance from the floor.

“It appeared to be farther than 44 inches from the floor. There’s a possibility the apartment violates the (building) code, but I deemed it safe,” Hanley said. “A zoning officer determined it was legal.”

Target 12 checked Newport tax records and found out 20 Bliss Road is assessed as a two-family with an unfinished basement. Hanley said the area is actually half-finished with a bedroom, a bathroom, and a second sink area.

“It wasn’t a kitchen,” Hanley said. “That would’ve made it an apartment and created a possible zoning issue.”

Hanley said his office writes up hundreds of violations a month but he did not write a violation after inspecting Pires’s apartment.

He said she did not get special treatment because she is a co-worker.

“Absolutely not,” Hanley said. “There’s only one code. I have discretion and take that responsibility very seriously.”

Smith has since moved out of the apartment.

Pires has not returned several phone calls and emails from Target 12.Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at and follow him on Twitter@wbuteau

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