WESTBROOK - The Westbrook City Council is going to take another look at the city’s unpopular sprinkler ordinance with an eye toward allowing exceptions for smaller projects.
The ordinance, which was passed in 2009, requires that sprinkler systems be added to all new homes. It also applies to any alteration or addition to an existing home that increases the living space of that residence – a requirement that includes such projects as finishing basements and attics, as well as smaller projects like new bathrooms and expanded kitchens. In those cases, the sprinklers are required only in the part of the house where the work was performed.
At a meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday night, councilors heard from several local contractors and residents who said that the sprinkler requirement, which does not allow for any exceptions, puts an unnecessary cost on homeowners looking to do some smaller projects.
The committee voted 4-2, with councilors Mike Sanphy and John O’Hara opposing, to recommend sending to the full council an amendment proposed by Councilor Michael Foley that would allow exceptions to the sprinkler ordinance if a project affected less than a specified square footage of the residence, provided the project met all other safety code requirements. The actual square footage will be determined by the city administration before the amendment comes to the full council, likely later this month.
Foley’s amendment replaces one originally brought to the committee from the administration that would have triggered the exception if the cost of the sprinkler system were more than 25 percent of the total project costs.
City Administrator Jerre Bryant told the committee that the city had been hearing the complaints about the ordinance for some time.
“While (the sprinkler) requirement for new homes has been generally accepted, the code enforcement department has encountered significant resistance regarding its application to additions and alterations to existing homes,” Bryant said. “The crux of this resistance is based on the expense of installing a sprinkler system when compared to the total cost of relatively minor alterations and/or additions to existing homes. In a number of cases, the cost of the sprinkler system increases the cost of the project by 50 to 100 percent.”
Westbrook Code Enforcement Officer Rick Gouzie told the committee that he believed the sprinkler requirement was leading some residents to do work without getting a permit to avoid having to install a costly system. He said that was costing the city money in permit fees, but more importantly, it was leading to work being done without any inspection to make sure it was performed up to code.
Sanphy said he had some concerns about requiring sprinkler systems in existing buildings, calling the requirement “overkill.”
“I think these buildings should be grandfathered as long as they meet the other (life safety) requirements,” he said.
O’Hara joined Sanphy in voting against the proposed change, saying instead of amending the existing ordinance, he would rather see a focus on making sure that all other fire safety requirements were in place in proposed projects, with the additional idea of making sure that means of escape from any fire were protected as much as possible.
“There is a compromise here somewhere and I think we should be moving in that direction,” he said.
Bill Childs, a contractor who lives on Tolman Street, said that he was against the current requirement.
“Adopting this code pole-vaulted over reasonableness,” he said, adding that as potential homeowners hear that they will have to add a sprinkler system with any remodeling project, they will look to move to places other than Westbrook.
“It will veer people away from this community,” he said.
Tony Boffa, who has had a longtime presence in the city with his Tony Boffa Band and his music school, said he ran up against the ordinance when he tried to help his daughter with a remodeling project at her home in Westbrook.
Boffa said that they were trying to finish the upstairs of his daughter’s Cape-style home when learned that a sprinkler system would have to be installed.
“This seemed really illogical to me,” he said. “I’ve lived in some beautiful homes. They were never sprinkled.”
“To me, it’s beyond logic,” said Chris Wilson of Windham, who sold the home to Boffa and his daughter. “I think the ordinance was drafted with good intentions, but it’s consequently put people in a choke hold. Things are so tight, people don’t have the extra thousands of dollars to put into these systems.”
Travis Blake, a Scarborough remodeling contractor who is working with a client in Westbrook, said he was unaware of the sprinkler requirement until he went to Gouzie’s office to see about getting a permit.
“I’ve worked in a lot of towns and cities in the local area and that has never (come up),” he said.
Blake reiterated the point that many homeowners and contractors would likely seek to get around the requirement by doing the work without a permit.
“Now you have more life safety issues because you’re not going to get hardwired smoke detectors, you’re not going to get the electrical inspected,” he said. “And if the contractor’s willing to do work without a permit, he’s not doing it to code to begin with.”
In response to the concerns expressed by the residents, Westbrook Director of Public Safety Mike Pardue said the fire department was primarily concerned with keeping people safe, and was willing to work with the administration to come up with an ordinance that would work for everyone.
“We’re very understanding of a very challenging economy,” Pardue said. “We would be very open to engaging in dialogue to try and strike a balance. We’re not dug in from the standpoint of the fire department. We want to prevent every incident we can and save every life we can while being understanding of the challenges that (residents) face.”