OCEAN CITY – If it burns gas, you will soon be required to leave it to the pros.
The town of Ocean City continues to try to mend its image after landing two proverbial public relations black eyes this summer due to two carbon monoxide (CO) scares at downtown businesses (the Americana Motel and the El Capitan condominiums). As a result, the town has been taking steps to make sure that people are in compliance with their CO law, which is one of the most stringent in the region, and now, they have extended their efforts a step further and will soon require that all new gas and mechanical equipment installed in Ocean City first pass a licensed inspection prior to installation.
“Till this point, we have never done permitting for gas or mechanical. We have just relied on the contractors and installers to make sure that things were done the way they were supposed to be done,” said Planning and Community Development Director Jesse Houston on Tuesday.
At the request of the state of Maryland’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing in a letter penned on Aug. 14, Houston and his team advised council to adopt these new parameters for new installations of fuel burning equipment and large mechanical installations such as ventilation, exhaust and duct systems to name a few.
In order to allow area contractors to catch up with the town’s new specifications, the council voted to put this rule into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, and stressed that ensuring public safety was far more valuable than the slight financial strain it may put on property and business owners.
“This will regulate the systems going into the homes and the places that people will stay when they are in Ocean City to ensure safety and ease concerns,” said Chief Building Official Kevin Brown.
Mayor Rick Meehan applauded the council’s unanimous decision to take these steps, despite some concerns from some small business owners who sit on the council, most vocally, Councilman Joe Hall, who owns Hall’s Restaurant.
“I think the council made the right decision here, and five years ago, I don’t remember anyone talking about CO detectors, and those problems came to light and they came to light quickly,” said Meehan. “I think the town has responded to those problems very quickly and appropriately because public safety is a universal issue, and everyone expects to be safe when they come to Ocean City and there is a cost to make that the case.”
Hall’s concerns came from a small business owner’s perspective, taking umbrage with the fact that now if he wants to upgrade an oven in his restaurant, for instance, he will have to pay the yet-to-be-determined permit fee and pay a third party to do the installation and inspection.
“People move equipment out of a restaurant all the time,” said Hall, “and I haven’t seen where we have had the calls or evidence that restaurant equipment has been failing. If I get a new oven now, I’ve got to pay a guy like $400 just to walk in the door, so that’s probably 10 percent of what a new piece of equipment is going to cost. It seems extreme, and I don’t see where this will protect the public; it just adds expense.”
Brown stressed to Hall that his alluded “in-house” installation by essential handymen is actually against the regulations passed down by the state of Maryland.
“To be honest with you, in accordance with the state of Maryland laws, a handyman is not really licensed to ever install that piece of equipment to begin with, and it’s been that way for years, and it’s a bit more than just taking the old mechanism out and putting the new one back in,” Brown said.
With the town’s CO law in place and policies already requiring all certified plumbers and gas fitters to obtain a permit to do the inspections, when January rolls around and this law goes into place, the council feels that looming uncertainty about public safety in Ocean City will be properly addressed.
“It’s not going to be 100 percent full proof because we can’t be everywhere all the time, nor can we pick up on every issue that someone may have with an appliance they installed themselves,” said Brown, “but when you look at the permit fees and the inspection fees, I don’t think this is too much to ask to ensure public safety.”
Councilman Jim Hall pointed out an accident at the former Miyako Japanese Steakhouse in West Ocean City a few years back when the proprietor, who was essentially renovating the building on his own, improperly installed a liquid propane gas line and was critically burned as a result.
“I just can’t get that out of my head as we are talking about this because I think he unfortunately passed away as a result of those injuries,” said Hall. “We’ve been chasing carbon monoxide for months, but liquid propane is just about as nasty and if your coupling comes apart or the handyman didn’t tighten things properly and you light your cigarette in the morning you could have an even greater catastrophic accident.”
The council must go through two readings to establish what the fee structure will be for the permits, but Houston and Brown noted that they would be “reasonably small fees to handle the administrative costs.” The Fire Marshal’s Office will also be doing some of the inspections, according to Brown.
“We have learned from history and we are being proactive,” said Meehan. “We want to focus on Ocean City being ahead of the curve, passing the right ordinances so that when people come here, they feel safe, and that should be our main goal.”
Joe Hall, despite voting for the measure, remains concerned with the message being sent to business owners with more fees and regulations.
“People are having a tough time out there, and if we keep adding these things, it’s going to get to a point where people say they can’t do it anymore,” said Hall. “I like safety and I don’t want me or any of my customers to blow up, but when it doesn’t add to the safety, and it only adds to the expense, it bothers me.”