2012-11-02 / Community

Renovating your home?

South Portland could require sprinklers be installed in renovations or new homes
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – As South Portland’s population continues to grow, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond wants to make sure the city’s 25,000 residents stay safe and prepared against residential fires.

Sprinkler systems in the home are the most effective to lessen damage caused by residential fires, Guimond told the South Portland City Council at a workshop last month. He proposed a plan to require the systems in all new houses in South Portland, as well as homes that undergo renovations encompassing more than 50 percent of their original square footage.

However, the sprinkler systems don’t come without a cost – between $3,000 and $5,000, Guimond said – depending on the size of the home they’re installed in.

That cost, said South Portland resident and developer Gary Crosby, is too much to force on a homebuilder.

“I don’t think it should ever be forced on somebody in a private residence. I fully understand for multi units because you can’t control what your neighbor does.” Crosby said. “With our current economy, to consider laying that cost on someone building a house is out of place.”

The council understood the financial burden residential sprinklers would place on homebuilders and considered taking measures to offset that added cost.

Councilor Jerry Jalbert anticipated “a lot of pushback in the community” in the discussion process, and said waiving or reducing the building permit fee would show the city is serious about making home ownership affordable.

“If we really believe in this, we as the city of South Portland need to put our money where our mouth is,” Jalbert said.

Councilor Maxine Beecher agreed with Jalbert’s approach. She noted that most of the new housing stock going up in South Porltand is on lots less than 5,000 square feet, meaning the people in the units are “people of moderate incomes.”

“An additional three grand – I’m not saying it isn’t a grand idea – but it could tip the balance for people who can’t afford it,” Beecher said.

Councilor Tom Blake supports the idea of the sprinkler system, but warned the council may be exhibiting some “hypocrisy” in the discussion. The council recently discussed relaxing environmental standards in the city to promote development, and Blake wrote in an email, “The creation of a new building life safety regulation is the exact opposite direction we were discussing last month.”

The significant cost of the sprinkler systems may make mandatory installation a divisive issue, but the scope of the changes will likely be limited.

According to city Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer, 23 new homes have been built in South Portland since April 2011, and Guimond said those planning major renovations also have ways to get beneath the 50 percent threshold that would trigger the need for a sprinkler system.

Despite the limits, many councilors agreed on principle that the sprinklers were the best way to ensure safety and supported the requirement without any concessions to homeowners.

“The benefit far outweighs the detriment. I’m in favor of putting it in, and I don’t think we need to waive fees or anything,” said Councilor Tom Coward. “If we require it, people will start thinking about it and they’ll be aware of it.”

Mayor Patti Smith agreed and said she is willing to put forward the plan for council action “as is.”

The safety advantages of the sprinkler systems in homes are undeniable, said Guimond.

Guimond said the fire department’s average response time to a call is 10 minutes, while a sprinkler system is engaged in about two or three minutes, saving residents time before a fire can spread to do serious damage. While some worry the sprinklers can do damage to their home, a single sprinkler head puts about 15 gallons of water into a home per minute, while a fire hose can pump in thousands of gallon per minute, he said.

The systems also protect firefighters, Guimond said. As an example, he cited the fire this summer that destroyed a local chiropractor’s home on Main Street.

“If that had been protected by a sprinkler, we would not have had six guys in the building when the roof collapsed. It would have been put out in the room of origin,” Guimond said.

The firefighters were able to get out of the house minutes before the roof collapsed. None were injured, nor was the homeowner, Dr. Alan Williams.

Crosby said there are drawbacks to the systems as well, including the ongoing cost of maintenance, as well as the added property value that leads to increased property taxes.

“If you really want to promote affordable housing in the city, this is not how you do it,” Crosby said.

The city currently requires residential sprinklers in new developments that are a certain distance away from fire hydrants.

The sprinkler issue came up as part of a series of changes to the fire code ordinance, but Guimond said the council will likely pass the more minor changes first, and then turn to the sprinkler issue separately.

Even with the momentum coming from the discussion, Guimond expects the residential sprinkler issue to extend through many months of council discussion.

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