SNOW HILL– The Worcester County Commissioners this week agreed to draft a document that could allow single-family homes to opt out of the state’s fire sprinkler requirement.
On Tuesday, the commissioners voted unanimously to have county staff develop a new building permit that would allow those constructing single-family homes to opt out of the state requirement to install residential fire sprinklers. Since 2015, automatic fire sprinkler systems have been required in new residential dwellings.
“I believe that this is hindering building in the county,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.
After becoming aware that Allegany County was not requiring sprinkler systems in new homes, the commissioners asked staff to review state law in regard to sprinkler systems. In a report provided to the commissioners in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, staff reported that Allegany County had never adopted the latest version of the International Building Code, which mandates sprinklers in new dwellings.
“Based upon our reading of state law, not only are they in violation for not enforcing the residential fire sprinkler requirement at all but they also appear to be in violation for not adopting the most recent edition of the code, currently the 2015 edition, as required by state law,” reads the report from Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor and Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon. “Based upon the information above, we believe Worcester County would also be in direct violation of state law if we not enforce the sprinkler requirements as we do now.”
The staff report also references the county’s rating from the Insurance Services Office, which provides information to the insurance industry regarding the county’s building codes. “Significant deductions in scoring can result from major deviations in the enforcement of the provisions of the published codes,” the report reads.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said he didn’t understand how that could be an issue since it was identified as a problem in the grace period of several years provided to Maryland’s counties before the sprinkler mandate went into effect. He also said he recalled that when the question initially came up several years ago, a majority of local fire companies supported the concept of opting out of the requirement.
Commissioner Ted Elder pointed out the various pieces of equipment that were needed to incorporate fire sprinklers into a home served by well water.
“I think sprinklers are extreme when you have to put it in a rural area,” he said, adding that many homes hadn’t been built because of the new requirement.
When asked how many residential structure fires there had been in Worcester County in the past year, McMahon told the commissioners there had been roughly 3,000 structure fires in the past five years. He added, however, that that that number included fires in any type of structure, including sheds.
McMahon said the average response time in Worcester County was 17 minutes and that sprinklers did reduce property damage.
Commissioner Bud Church said that was debatable, as they also caused a lot of property damage. When he asked about the cost of incorporating sprinklers into new homes, McMahan said the cost was roughly $1 per square foot.
Mitrecic said he didn’t think that was a viable figure and expressed concern over the sprinkler mandate.
“It costs the people of the county more to do business, to build a house,” he said. “It costs the people building the houses more so they have to pass that on.”
He said in nearby Delaware, particularly on Route 54, there was lots of development underway.
“Compare that with Worcester County…,” he said. “I think this code is one of the inhibitors of people doing new construction out in the county.”
Bunting made a motion to instruct staff to work with the county attorney to prepare a new building permit that would allow people to opt out of the sprinkler requirement. He said the owner and builder would have to sign the permit, and that an accompanying document would be included with the deed if a home was sold. Bunting instructed staff to return with the new documents within a month, at which time the commissioners would vote on them and then “send them to the state with a proposed date of applying the new law and wait for comments from them.”
The motion passed unanimously. When asked her input, Maureen Howarth, the county’s attorney, said the commissioners were not changing the law.
“The law is still the law,” she said. “You haven’t changed the law. By doing a revised permit, the law is still the same.”
Bunting noted that but indicated that he just wanted to get something to state officials for them to review.