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Westbrook council amends sprinkler rules, but promises more debate

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Posted: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 12:07 pm

WESTBROOK – It seems that the debate over Westbrook’s controversial sprinkler ordinance is destined to go on for a little while longer.

At a meeting of the Westbrook City Council on Monday, councilors voted 5-1 (Mike Sanphy opposed; Dotty Aube was not present) to give initial approval to an amendment to the sprinkler ordinance that would exempt projects from having to install sprinkler systems if the scope of the project does not exceed 75 percent of the floor area.

In the case of a renovation of an existing building, the project must encompass less than 75 percent of the building to be exempt from the ordinance. In the case of an expansion of an existing building, the finished expansion must total less than 75 percent of the total area of the building after the expansion to be exempt. The amendment will take effect if the council passes it on a second vote at a meeting May 14.

But even after giving the amendment initial approval, several councilors said they wanted to keep discussing changes to the ordinance, including debating a potential change that would remove the sprinkler requirement from work being done on existing homes.

The existing sprinkler ordinance, which was passed in May 2009, requires that sprinkler systems be added to all new homes. Before the council’s action this week, it also applied to any alteration or addition to an existing home that increased the living space of that residence – a requirement that included such projects as finishing basements and attics, as well as smaller projects like new bathrooms and expanded kitchens. In those cases, the sprinklers were required only in the part of the house where the work was performed.

While the new amendment now lifts the requirement for smaller projects, it did not satisfy all of the councilors. Before the council voted on the amendment, Sanphy tried to change it to exempt all existing single- and two-family homes from having to install sprinklers, no matter the scope of the project.

“I don’t think we should be invading people’s rights in their own homes to put in something that they don’t want,” he said.

Sanphy’s motion was seconded by Councilor John O’Hara, who said that  he supported the idea of lifting the requirement for existing homes because he believed it was unfair for the “small-time homeowner” to have the added expense of installing a sprinkler system when they were considering a renovation.

Councilor Mike Foley said that he would not support exempting existing  homes from the ordinance, saying that he felt the 75 percent trigger proposed by the administration was sufficient.

“I thought we had an acceptable ordinance that the code enforcement office and the administration has provided,” he said.

Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Jones said that while the fire department still supports the original ordinance with no exemptions, if a change had to be made, the department could support the 75 percent trigger, but would not support eliminating the requirement from new homes entirely. “We understand what issues are driving this,” he said.

But the argument was soon for naught. Before the council could take a vote on Sanphy’s proposed amendment, City Solicitor Natalie Burns said that because the proposed amendment on the original agenda did not address the section of the ordinance that discussed single-family homes, the council could not consider a motion that made a change to that section of the ordinance, which she said Sanphy’s proposal did, adding that the council could vote on the 75 percent amendment at that meeting, and then at a future meeting, revisit Sanphy’s proposal, saying that the council could make changes to the ordinance at any time.

Faced with that, Sanphy’s motion was withdrawn, leaving the council to consider the original amendment with the 75 percent trigger. Mayor Colleen Hilton asked the council to take action on that amendment, saying that she has heard from a number of residents who are delaying renovation projects until this issue is settled. With the spring construction under way, she wanted to give those people a chance to start their projects, while allowing the council to continue to discuss changes to the ordinance.

Resident Bill Childs, of Tolman Street, also said that he wanted to see some changes made, even if they were temporary ones.

“I implore you to take the 75 percent route as a stopgap measure,” he told the council, while adding that he also wanted to see the discussion continue.

Council President Brendan Rielly said he understood the importance of taking some action to make sure that residents can get their projects started, but added that he wanted to see the council continue the discussion of exempting single-family homes from the ordinance. Rielly said he expected that discussion to continue at an upcoming council meeting.

While O’Hara said he still supported the removal of the requirement for existing homes and would welcome the chance to discuss the issue at a meeting in the near future, he agreed that something needed to be done to the ordinance in the interim.

“(I will support this amendment tonight) to make sure we can move the building process forward,” O’Hara said.

Welcome to the discussion.