County Commissioners Vote For Sprinkler Exemption

SNOW HILL – Coming on the heels of Berlin’s decision last week, the County Commissioners voted 5-2 to completely exempt the county from the recent state law mandating residential sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family homes.

Tuesday’s meeting was not the first time the commissioners had discussed the issue. In all previous sessions, no definitive resolution had been proposed. However, Commission President Bud Church believed that the two new additions to the group, Commissioners Merrill Lockfaw and Madison Bunting, might be able to share a new perspective.

“Many people feel that smoke detectors as the first line of defense is what should be considered,” Lockfaw said.

Lockfaw said he received a lot of feedback from his district on the issue, and that most of it was in favor of opting out of the mandate.

Bunting agreed, saying, “I’ve gotten the same phone calls…the overwhelming feeling being that we should opt out.”

Bunting pointed out that a predecessor on the commission had been a fireman and still voted against mandatory sprinklers.

“I feel very strongly that it [sprinklers] should not be mandated by the state…it should be a personal decision,” Bunting said.

Commissioner Judy Boggs, one of the two to vote against opting out of the mandate, invited Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon to briefly speak about the benefits of sprinklers.

McMahon singled out Prince George’s County, which had seen multiple fire-related deaths in the last two decades but none in homes protected by sprinklers.

“I think that the life safety issue is the major issue,” she said.

“The safety side is definitely real,” agreed Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

However, when it came down to it, Shockley still had to consider the feedback his own district had given him.

“The bottom line is, most of my district don’t want it,” said Shockley.

Shockley also compared sprinklers to wearing flak jackets and helmets while driving – they would probably save lives, but had to be balanced against other factors like cost and convenience.

Church stressed that if the commission voted to opt out of the law, people could still have sprinklers put in, it would simply be optional instead of mandatory.

“We’re not taking away anyone’s right to install sprinklers,” he stated.

Church added that, if he were building a new home himself, he would probably have sprinklers installed, even if they were optional. Shockley made a similar statement.

When it was Commissioner Jim Purnell’s turn to speak, he took a hard view of the issue.

“Mandate, mandate, mandate,” he said. “It’s getting ridiculous in this county. It’s time to put a stop to it.”

Bunting took a moment to point out that Worcester would hardly be unique if it opted out of the state law.

“There are eleven counties in the same situation…only one is considering mandating,” Bunting said.

Additionally, it was brought up that some municipalities in the county, including the previously mentioned Town of Berlin, had already made individual decisions to opt out. Berlin exempted itself from one-family dwellings only, though, requiring sprinkler systems to be installed in all new two-family homes, otherwise known as “duplexes.”

The commissioners, however, voted to opt out of the mandate for both one- and two-family dwellings, with the official motion claiming the county had the “peculiar circumstance” of being largely rural in nature.

All but Boggs and Commissioner Louise Guylas voted in favor of the motion.