Council continues discussion on sprinkler mandate

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Milford City Council continued its discussion on mandating sprinklers at a recent workshop

At a recent workshop, Milford City Council continued a discussion about whether they would require all new houses built in Milford to include a sprinkler system or to offer an incentive of some sort to encourage those who are building new homes to install a sprinkler. City Manager Mark Whitfield began the discussion by saying he and City Planner Rob Pierce had their own disagreements about how the city should manage sprinklers. Pierce explained that part of the issue was that the city was served by more than one fire department.

“I wanted to make council aware that, based on our municipal boundary that exists today, our municipalities are served by two fire companies,” Pierce said, providing a map that showed the fire boundaries provided to him by the state. “We’re served by Carlisle Fire Company and then the Hickory Glen development off of Holly Hill Road and Route 14 actually falls within the Houston Volunteer Fire Company district.”

Pierce informed council that the city had no jurisdiction over the fire districts as they were established at the state level. There was no method for Milford to require the entire municipality be served by Carlisle Fire Company. He also explained that south of Johnson Road and west of Route 30, there is a section of land that will fall to Ellendale Fire Company. There were not plans currently to develop that area, but in the future it was possible a development could be constructed there which would mean Milford could then be served by three fire companies.

“Our enhancement fund should probably be worded to make it more generic, like the Fire Company Enhancement Fund and then we should just kind of generalize the language within that,” Pierce said. “As you heard earlier, Carlisle has some problems and may have to go to a paid fire company in the future. It will be interesting from a building permit standpoint right now. When they come in, we’ll have to section a pot of that money to go to the Houston Fire Company, but we have not really established an agreement or known relationship with them yet.”

Whitfield explained that he had a discussion with Carlisle about possibly altering fire districts and he was told it was not worth the fight. There have been lawsuits filed over the years regarding fire districts, so swapping one section of land for another was simply not possible. Basically, Whitfield was told the districts are set in stone and the city would have to live with them. Pierce also pointed out that the fire districts could be a good starting point for discussion with Carlisle about the placement of fire sirens, an auxiliary station or other matters.

“Moving on to the sprinkler discussion, obviously we started in January with some presentations and workshops with council and the fire company as well as the Fire Marshal’s Office and the Sprinkler Coalition,” Pierce said. “We polled the Homebuilder’s Association in Delaware and had some pretty productive feedback. Public hearings were held at the end of June and, ultimately council adopted the updated building code in July without the sprinkler code requirement for one and two family dwellings and townhouses. At that time, we were directed by council to incentivize our program, to incentivize sprinkler installations. So that is the premise of why we are here this evening.”

Pierce recommended that the fire company enhancement fund fee added to building permits could be increased from the current one-quarter of a percent to three percent. This would mean a home that cost $200,000 to build would increase the permit costs from $500 to $6,000. This would mean the total permit costs would increase from $12,410 for the home to $17,910. Based on a chart provided by Pierce, building permit fees include the municipal enhancement fund, water and sewer impact fee, county impact fee, electric impact fee, an electric connection charge, an electric underground charge, a water meter fee and a water/sewer inspection fee along with the Carlisle Enhancement Fund fee. In addition, the permit fees are $50 per 100 square feet of heated area and $13 per square foot of unheated area. The Certificate of Occupancy is $25.

“Some of these things we cannot change, like the Kent County sewer fee,” Pierce said. “Even though some of our town is in Sussex, our treatment plant is in Kent County. The change to the enhancement fund doesn’t have to be three percent, we tried to make it comparable to what both the Delaware Sprinkler Coalition and NFPA and what some of the homebuilders said some of this stuff will cost. You want to make it worthwhile for them to choose the fire sprinklers and if you make it pretty much a wash, they probably will choose not to do it.”

Councilman Todd Culotta expressed concern about increasing the enhancement fund so significantly, pointing out that when you built or bought a home, there was a three percent buyer premium and a three percent seller premium, already adding six percent to the price of a home. In his mind, he thought the plan was for a reduction in fees to incentivize someone to install sprinklers in their home.

“With our electric costs, everyone complains they are really high, but they’re really not when you compare them to other places,” Councilman Culotta said. “We’ve done a really good job of looking at our costs of services and saying we’re only going to charge what we absolutely must. So now we are going to come back and say “hey, we are going to increase your startup fees.” That is one of the complaints of the sprinkler mandate in the first place. To me, three percent is too high, especially right now.”

Councilman Jason James pointed out that the enhancement fund fee did not have to be three percent, it could be a lower number. Councilman Culotta agreed that it was an incentive, but still felt it was higher than necessary.

“We can also mandate things like our setbacks again,” Councilman Culotta said. “The traditional setback in Milford is eight feet. So that means 16 feet between structures. If for some reason you get a variance to get a lesser setback, you can mandate sprinklers. You have five feet or ten feet between buildings, you have to have a sprinkler. Remember, this is new developments we are talking about, not single builds. So, I think there still needs to be an incentive plan. I don’t think we need to give away the farm, but we also need to kind of dig a little deeper where that can come from.”

Councilman Culotta also pointed out that the fees would be added to the Carlisle Enhancement Fund that could only be used by the fire company for capital improvements, not operational budget items. Councilman Michael Boyle agreed, stating that the fees collected from the fund would go directly to the fire company so the city would not benefit nor would the homebuyer. Councilman James stated that this was likely what Pierce and Whitfield differed in their opinion. Councilman Andy Fulton liked the idea of offering an incentive and then requiring sprinklers if a developer requested smaller setbacks. Councilman Boyle pointed out that it would not cost the city anything to require sprinklers in homes.

“Right, every house will have an incentive at some point,” Councilman Culotta said. “We’re going to have things continue to occur. What if we say “Well, I’m having a hell of a time getting police officers, let’s incentivize our homeowner to do this?” If we give it all away right here, we’ll never be able to do it in the future.”

Councilman Boyle felt that people would not install sprinklers without incentives or mandates.

“I can tell you, for young people starting up, that’s a lot of money,” Councilman Fulton said. “They’re not a retiree. They’re not coming here to retire. They’re coming here to live or for a job or a paycheck and move forward. They’re not here to retire. You want young people to leave, raise it.”

Councilman Boyle stated that there would never be sprinklers in homes if there is a choice and that it was a matter of safety for the city. He felt that requiring sprinklers was a benefit for everyone. Councilman Fulton stated that if council was going to mandate sprinklers in new buildings, they should also be mandated in older buildings. Councilwoman Katrina Wilson pointed out that council could not go back and require sprinklers in already built homes and Councilman Culotta agreed, stating that some homes would need to be grandfathered. Councilman Boyle pointed out that the matter needed to start somewhere.

“But what is the mandate? Because we are talking about new builds, not my house that is 100 years old,” Councilman Culotta said. “Building materials are designed to retard flames. A sheet of drywall is like a 20 to 30 minute fire rating, something like that. Houses are designed to have a certain burn rating. Sprinklers give you one additional hour to escape. They don’t necessarily stop the fire; they give you more opportunity to get out. What is the importance of that one hour in a new build? Not really a lot. My house, maybe, because it is old and that’s where most of the fire deaths in Milford are. In Delaware, most fire deaths come from older homes. We demand fire alarms. I think it is another layer of security and protection. We can incentivize it. That’s why we decided not to mandate it when we brought on the new building code. If the state mandates it, we can revisit it.”

Councilman James agreed that when a developer was granted less than the standard easement that they should be mandated to install sprinklers. Pierce explained that the building code did not allow anything less than five feet variances. There was also something in the code that assumed a structure was on the property line. If a developer was granted a five foot variance, they were also limited in the number of openings were permitted on that side of the structure. He pointed out that Simpson Crossing was an approved development before the current code was in place and some of the homes were only three-and-half feet apart. None of those homes were permitted to have windows or doors on the side of the homes with less than a five foot variance.

“If you tear your house down, you are no longer grandfathered,” Pierce said. “You either need to rebuild and meet building code or come back to the Board of Adjustment for a variance. With older homes, if they could document before the home is torn down and prove that the house would need a different variance, the board often looks favorably because they are usually taking a non-compliant residence and making it compliant.”

Councilwoman Wilson commented that she often told people who mentioned to her that the homes in developments seemed close together that when she was a child, that was normal. That many of the streets in town had homes that were built very close together. Councilman Culotta mentioned that many retirees moving here preferred homes closer together as there was less yard maintenance.

“I think all we’re saying is correct, I just don’t think we can walk away from Councilman Boyle’s comments,” Councilman James said. “We just spent a lot of time speaking with our local fire department and their being available. Volunteer members affect response times because you may have no one. Volunteers may not show up, so that has an effect on not meeting public safety requirements. Going back to where we were, how do you incentivize, because remember, even though we’re trying to incentivize off what is currently on the books, we do have to keep in mind, and I am not saying Milford is broke, we all know better than that, but we do have to keep in mind the budget. There are always budget constraints and if something is going to crowd something else out, we have to decide what are the priorities. Mark is going to say “Well you want all these things. I can’t do them all. Council, tell me what you want.””

Pierce pointed out that permit charges are fairly competitive with peer communities. Currently, out of the 57 municipalities throughout the three counties, only three required sprinklers, Lewes, Milton and Newark. When asked if Pierce knew the impact of the mandates on those cities, he stated that they were very different housing markets, so it was difficult to determine.

“I will add, and it is too bad Carlisle left, but I did have this discussion with them,” Whitfield said. “They were not in favor of the money only because, and this is their words, you can’t put a price on a life. Their druthers is to have sprinklers mandated because money doesn’t mean anything to them when it comes to loss of life.”

Councilman Culotta stated that he also had a long conversation with Duane Fox from the Fire Marshall’s Office who told him the same thing. However, using that argument, Councilman Culotta stated that the city should mandate all homes be constructed of cinder block.

“And there should be paramedics in every city in Delaware, but there is a cost,” Councilman Fulton said. “There is a cost. I just think that us being number four with this mandate would be a mistake.”

Councilman James stated he did not like mandates, but he felt council should do something.

“This life safety is a big deal,” Councilman James said. “You know, anytime we can buy, the thought is an hour, an hour is a lot if the sprinkler system can retard or slow the flame or whatever.”

Councilman Fulton pointed out that it was not the fire that killed most people, but the smoke.

“Your brain starts dying in six minutes and we do not have a paramedic that can reach you in six minutes,” Councilman Fulton said. “Your brain will never be what it is right now in six minutes. You aren’t going to get advanced life support in six minutes here. And guess what? It ain’t happened yet. The counties are aware, the city governments have been made aware, previous administrations have been made aware, representatives have been contacted, the state is aware and nothing has happened yet. And we’re not a small town. We are a large city. So yes, time matters and I’m still trying to fix one thing. And if we mandate for all new construction, I think if there’s any variance to the width, our terms will be sprinklers.”

Mayor Archie Campbell asked if it was true the cost of a sprinkler system was $20,000 and Councilman Fulton explained that was one contractor’s estimate. He also reminded council that sprinklers could also have problems, such as a head that pops leading to water damage. Councilman Culotta pointed out that was another issue, that insurance companies were claiming they wanted sprinklers but if something went wrong with the system, rates would go up.

“There’s a gentleman in Middletown who installs these things,” Councilman James said. “He disconnected from his own home. The maintenance that he had to do each year, but he installs them for other people. At least that is what he says. I haven’t been to his home but there’s an argument for every side. So, what is council’s preference?”

Councilman Fulton commented that he would like to find $1,000 to $2,500 to offer as incentives for developments and a code requirement that any variation less than eight feet require sprinklers. However, he also remarked that most fire deaths occur in older homes, wondering how retrofitting those homes with sprinklers could be incentivized in those homes as well.

“Can I throw out a wild hair idea?” David Rutt, City Solicitor, said. “You’re trying to micromanage. We heard tonight that there’s a problem with volunteers. The problem will be ongoing in the near future. And maybe one thing to do is to go to the state and give the fire districts the ability to impose a tax, not a very big one. And if you have a sprinkler and you do install a sprinkler, that goes down. There, you have the ability for them to get money that would allow them to even pay volunteers. Like every time you go on a run, you get $100, something like that. Plus, they have some cash flow going. That would encourage people to put in a sprinkler system.”

Councilman Culotta commented that would be an increase in taxes.

“Yeah, but people don’t mind paying a tax if they see a benefit,” Councilman Fulton said. “Your benefit here is you have a well-staffed, well-equipped fire department. Again, it’s a crazy idea, but it’s something that takes care of a lot of the things that we are dealing with.”

Rutt stated that this would be a statewide tax, not just in Milford. Councilman Culotta pointed out that it would go back to the state mandating sprinklers which would require Milford to do the same. Mayor Campbell commented that he thought at the last meeting there was a decision about the sprinkler requirement.

“At the last meeting, the direction from council was for staff to develop an incentive program for council’s consideration,” Whitfield said. “We were going to wait to see what the state and county did, but we were asked to bring back an incentive program.” Councilman Culotta thanked Whitfield and Pierce for the work they put into the program but felt there needed to be more homework.

Councilman James asked Councilman Culotta about his idea for incentives. Councilman Culotta felt the incentive should be based off the square footage of the home, creating an incentive that would offset the water impact fees should the sprinkler system ignite. Whitfield warned against reducing any impact fees because of other projects planned by the city. He also pointed out that any profit earned from utilities was put back into the city. Lowering those fees could result in the inability of the city to buy land, build playgrounds and do other things the public seemed to want. Councilman Culotta stated that he could build his house outside of Milford and avoid those fees but still use the playgrounds in Milford.

“People won’t,” Whitfield said. “The reason people build homes in Milford is the availability of water and sewer. You’re not going to get that in Sussex or Kent County outside of the city.”

Mayor Campbell asked what plan council wanted to use.

“What’s the idea about going the other way?” Councilman Fulton said. “Saying if you put sprinklers in your house, these are your rates and if you don’t for new builds, it’s going to be $60 per 100 square feet for heated space and $15 for non-heated? I mean you’re increasing again, we’re trying to do the right thing and charging them a fee for not being as safe as the other brand new person, so you’re incentivizing by not charging. We still actually bring in more money for people who don’t want to do it because they can’t afford the extra cost, or they need that third bedroom.”

Whitfield and Pierce will continue working on the sprinkler incentive program and bring more information back at a future workshop or council meeting.

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