Wicomico Opts Out Of State Sprinkler Mandate

SALISBURY — Wicomico officials this week voted to opt out of the state-mandated requirement for sprinklers in newly constructed single- and double-family dwellings after a passionate public hearing on Tuesday.

The Wicomico County Council on Tuesday voted 6-1 after a spirited public hearing. Earlier this year, the state lawmakers passed legislation mandating sprinklers in new one-family and two-family homes while providing an opt-out provision for those jurisdictions that could prove their circumstances were unique, or “peculiar.”

The new state mandate goes into effect on all new residential construction in 2015, but the law provided local jurisdictions with an opportunity to opt out, if only for three year. Wicomico exercised its ability to opt out on Tuesday after hearing convincing arguments on both sides. In the end, the majority of the council agreed sprinklers should continue to be optional, at least for the next three years.

“It should be a consumer choice,” said Councilman Matt Holloway. “It should ultimately be the homeowner’s decision.”

Councilmember Gail Bartkovich agreed sprinkler installation should not be mandated by the government.

“I’m a strong supporter of fire safety, but it should be a matter of personal choice,” she said. “The government shouldn’t always mandate what people do.”

However, the lone dissenting vote came from Councilmember Sheree Sample-Hughes, who said opting out would weaken the county’s public safety laws.

“I knew at some point we would come to this,” she said. “I cannot support opting out and weakening what we have on the books already.”

Before the elected officials weighed in on the issue, they heard from several different sectors on the plusses and minuses of opting out. The new state law only covers new stick-built residential construction. Modular homes are already mandated to install sprinklers in new construction, and representatives from the modular building industry said opting out puts them at a disadvantage with their stick-built brethren.

“We’re not any different than stick-built homes,” said Brian Adkins of Atlantic Bay Homes, a modular builder. “We’re not going to catch fire any faster and we’re not going to burn down any faster. It’s unfair to single us out.”

Adkins urged the council to not opt out, if only to keep the playing field level.

“We’ve completed nine homes in Maryland since the code change went in effect and there has been no significant impact,” he said. “Selling the systems has not been difficult. I urge you not to take a step backward here tonight.”

Beracah Homes modular builder Brian Rush reminded the council there were criteria to meet in order to opt out.

“In order to opt out, you have to prove you’re peculiar,” he said. “How is Wicomico peculiar? What makes this county different? If I don’t think you’re peculiar, I have to challenge that. I don’t have a choice. I struggle every day to sell homes in a depressed market.”

However, Joan Strang, political liaison for the Coastal Association of Realtors (CAR), opined the depressed housing market was at the very heart of the decision to opt out of the state’s sprinkler mandate.

“We’re in favor of the counties opting out where possible because this continues to be an extremely depressed market,” she said. “I understand where the modular builders are coming from, but if we don’t opt out, we’re going to see a lot of builders out of business.”

State Fire Marshal William Barnard explained the need for sprinklers is more important than ever because of the types of building materials used, the furnishings in typical homes and the open floor plans are more conducive of spreading fire quickly.