ELLSWORTH — The City Council took no action on amending its fire prevention ordinance July 19 despite recommendations submitted by Fire Chief Scott Guillerault that would exempt minor subdivisions from installing fire prevention measures if specific criteria were met.
The discussion continued the councilors’ efforts to strive for balance between safety and cost when it comes to fire prevention measures, after developer Christopher Derr’s asking the council in June to waive the requirement. Derr developed a three-lot subdivision on Happytown Road appropriate for mobile homes but told councilors he was unable to sell the lots because the city requires sprinklers in homes built on the lots.
Sprinkler systems can cost up to $30,000, and arranging state inspection requirements add an additional burden, Derr said.
Under the current ordinance, developers of subdivisions can choose from sprinkler systems, underground holding tanks or connecting hydrants to a main water line to meet the fire prevention ordinance requirements. The requirements follow the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) but only 13 Maine towns use this NFPA recommendation. The state fire code does not.
Guillerault proposed exempting minor subdivisions from the fire prevention requirements if the Fire Department finds 1) the new lots front a public street; 2) the existing water supplies for firefighting are sufficient; and 3) there are no requirements under other city ordinances or codes for connecting to a water supply, installing a sprinkler system or for an onsite water supply.
“We feel this will provide some of the answers for small subdivisions,” Guillerault told councilors.
But councilors found the proposed amendment too subjective because the fire chief or his designee decides if the protection is adequate without the additional measures.
“With no set numbers, it’s pretty vague [and] arbitrary,” Councilor John Phillips said.
His fellow councilors agreed. Councilor Heather Grindle wanted more information on fire prevention codes in towns comparable to Ellsworth. Councilor Michelle Kaplan found fault with NFPA codes requiring sprinklers, since sprinkler and fire prevention manufacturers sit on its board pose a conflict of interest. Councilor Robert Miller found fault with the entire fire prevention code, noting that other communities without “this kind of ordinance … seem to do just fine.” All of the councilors found passing the cost on to homeowners prohibitive, especially with the local need for affordable housing.
Guillerault and Fire and Life Safety Inspector Thomas Canavan explained that the preventions currently in place allow for an adequate supply of water to fight a housefire before additional help arrives, with the sprinkler system, in particular, allowing time for occupants to escape.
“It gives us a chance for firefighters to go in and protect a life or property,” Guillerault said, noting the preventive measures also protect firefighters at the scene.
Councilors plan a vote on amending the ordinance in August, finding a majority consensus on exempting minor subdivisions from the subdivision fire protection standards and extending cistern tank intervals from 1,000 to 2,000 feet and eliminating the sprinkler system option for major subdivision.