Bill would require sprinklers for new homes, rehabs
A Baltimore City Council committee will hear a proposal this morning to require fire sprinkler systems in new homes and -- more significantly for a city chock-full of aging rowhomes -- in most renovations.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who sponsored the bill with Councilman Warren Branch, said she wants to prevent fire deaths. Rehabs of one- or two-unit homes would require sprinklers if the work covers at least 30 percent of the building's gross floor area or adds 30 percent more space.
Clarke said she began working on the legislation after hearing from Baltimore Fire Chief Jim Clack "about the need for sprinklers in residential homes, because they save lives." (The Fire Department said in a memo that it "strongly supports" the legislation.)
With rotating fire-company closures in the budget-strapped city, "we need other ways for citizens to protect themselves," she said. "And sprinklers are it."
The debate over the value of sprinklers vs. the cost -- with fire marshals on one side and home builders on the other -- has raged for years. But it's usually focused over new construction, not renovation.
In Baltimore, real estate investors were organizing Monday to turn out in opposition to the 10 a.m. hearing today.
Jack BeVier, a partner with Dominion Properties in Baltimore, which renovated about 90 homes in the area last year, said the cost of installing a sprinkler system in an existing property is substantially higher than adding it to a new home under construction. You're pulling apart walls and ceilings, then building them back up, he said.
He estimated the system and installation costs at $7,000 to $15,000 in an existing home, depending on the building size and condition. (Baltimore's housing agency, which is also opposed to the idea, estimates the cost at $13,000 to $15,000.)
"There's large portions of the city that aren't worth anything because of the condition of the property and the block that they're on -- they're not worth the construction cost required to put them back into use," BeVier said. "Adding another line item to the budget just increases the number of houses that fall into that category."
Baltimore Housing's memo of opposition, written by Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, suggests that setting the renovation threshold at 30 percent of the home could trigger the sprinkler requirement for more than investors. He argues that even homeowners doing fairly minor work in a small rowhouse, such as replacing cabinets or improving the basement, could end up having to put in sprinklers.
He suggested an 80 percent threshold.
Clarke said Baltimore would not be the first to mandate sprinkler systems as part of renovations. In Upper Dublin Township, Penn., sprinklers are required in projects where at least half of the interior walls and/or partitions have been removed during remodeling. Napa, Calif., requires them if more than half the floor area is affected by "demolition or rehabilitation."
Clarke said she's open to other ideas about the threshold for requiring sprinklers in renovation projects, but she thinks significant projects should include the devices.
"Because we have more rehab than new construction here, I think it’s very important to add that component at some level," Clarke said. "We need to do something."
The floor is now open for your debate.