Council postpones vote on sprinkler requirement

Terry RogersGovernment

City Council delayed voting on an ordinance that would have required sprinklers in all newly constructed single family homes

Despite several workshops on the matter over the past few months, Milford City Council voted to table a vote that would require sprinkler installation in all newly constructed homes in the city. During public comment, council heard from several contractors who claimed the requirement would be too expensive and could make it more difficult for lower income families and first time homebuyers to afford a newly constructed home. City Planner Rob Pierce state that discussions involved several stakeholders and included presentations from the Delaware Fire Sprinkler Coalition and in discussions with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and chief of the Carlisle Fire Company, all of whom were in favor of the new ordinance.

“I had information that having sprinkler systems versus not having it, that the number of fires have not decreased if you do have a sprinkler system,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said. “I mean, it does not mean that if you have a sprinkler system, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have more fires or less fires.” Pierce explained that this was true as a sprinkler system does not prevent a home from catching fire but that there was evidence that a sprinkler system would provide additional time for the fire department to arrive, reducing property loss and injury or death.

The new ordinance would only apply to newly constructed single-family homes as apartments, townhomes and multi-family structures were already required to have sprinkler systems. It would also not impact renovations or rehabilitations of properties unless the project affected more than 50 percent of the home. Pierce explained that if the interior of the home would be stripped to the studs, a sprinkler system may be required under the new ordinance. Councilwoman Wilson asked if homeowner’s insurance companies offered any discounts for homes with sprinklers. Pierce stated that he had not spoken to insurance companies but that he had been made aware that some did offer reduction in premiums for sprinklered homes.

“I actually spoke to insurance agents this week. The feedback I got was there essentially wouldn’t necessarily be a savings for you on your policy,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “However, there are insurance companies that won’t insure you unless you have a sprinkler system on a new build.”

The ordinance would have an effective date of January 1, 2023, in order to allow builders time to adapt to the new requirement. During the public comment section of the discussion, several members of the community spoke about the ordinance.

“I have built several new homes in the city of Milford that I own the last several years. I am also a home builder. I’ve built seven or eight homes in Maryland, where sprinklers are mandated so I have a little bit of experience with this,” Derrick Parker said. “I can tell you the vast majority of the homeowners that I’ve built homes for in Maryland where it’s mandated did not want them, nor did they especially want to pay for it. I’ve heard some numbers that have been tossed around. I have actual numbers that we’ve dealt with. In the construction side. The average cost for a sprinkler system is $4 to $5 a square foot. If you take a 2,200 square foot home, you’re looking at approximately $10,000.

Parker explained that he has been told by some of his clients that their home insurance costs actually increased because some of the insurance companies have now realized that their home is at a greater risk of a claim due to water damage.

“Another thing to consider real estate appraisals. Sprinklers give no additional value. If your home has sprinklers, that makes it even harder, especially for first time homebuyer to be able to qualify for a mortgage,” Parker said. “There are already additional items that are going to be adopted that are going to add additional cost aside from the sprinklers. So, if affordable housing is a concern for the city of Milford adding the cost of a mandated sprinkler system will only make it more difficult for all new homebuyers, especially first time homebuyers.”

Jeff Bowers, a contractor and investor in Milford, explained that Sussex County voted against requiring sprinklers several years ago due to the high cost of engineering the systems. He pointed out that newly constructed homes were already very safe and that it was older homes that were more at risk from fire. In Bowers’ opinion, smoke detectors saved lives, not sprinklers. Nina Pletcher pointed out that there were concerns about response times with the fire company and her concern about how closely homes were being built in new developments, including Simpson Crossing.

My primary concern is what you actually have in your house that is going to immediately catch fire and then extend to the structural components. And these days, polyester covered polyurethane foam type furniture and such burns hotter, and it burns faster. The content of a residential fire sprinkler system is flat out for life safety and the design of these systems takes into consideration certainly costs and basically similarly designed around where fire fatalities take place,” Paul Eichler, a volunteer firefighter with the City of Dover and chairman of the Delaware Fire Sprinkler Coalition. “I stand before you tonight in an environment where Delaware has suffered 15 fire fatalities so far this year. For all of 2021, we only had 10. I’m not going to try to pitch this that all 15 people would have been saved by sprinkler systems. However, it definitely would have made a difference in some of them.”

Eichler also pointed out that although smoke alarms are wonderful devices, they are there for notification of an event only if they are properly maintained. He stated that there are numerous reports that include information about smoke detectors not being in working order. There is also no other suppression reaction which is what sprinklers are designed to do.

“As the parent of a 27 year old in search of his first home. I definitely sympathize with the cost issues. At the same time, while it’s miniscule in conversation, think about the backside of an expenditure into a dwelling in that as long as the interest rate is reasonable, the cost in the overall mortgage will be low,” Eichler said. “Also. with regards to the insurance conversation. I have talked to the State Farm which is one of the larger property insurances throughout the state. And basically, it is a seven percent discount off of your homeowner’s policy. The prices that are being charged these days are only going to come down with a level of competition that increases with those contractors out there vying for that business.”

Duane Fox, past chief of Carlisle Fire Company and a fire marshal, explained that part of his job as a fire marshal is designing sprinkler systems. He stated that he could only base his comments on what his clients told him and they reported around $2 a square foot for a tank with a 250 gallon pump. Fox pointed out that just like any other water structure in a home, sprinklers require maintenance such as making sure pipes do not freeze in the winter.

“There’s a lot of stuff up here about how much its going to cost the builders and they are not going to make as much money and the impact on first time homebuyers, but my kids are invaluable, my grandkids are invaluable,” Fox said. “I don’t know how you put a price on that. It is true about older homes, but new homes burn as well. They burn from unattended cooking. They burn from other things. Talk to someone who lost their bother and grandchildren in Anne Arundel because a live Christmas tree caught fire. They had smoke detectors and it didn’t mean anything. You have to think about the longevity of the town and the safety that goes with it. Like Paul said, there’s not a lot of kids beating down the door to become volunteer firefighters. You guys are aware of that, so that is stuff you have to think about.”

Fox stated that Sussex County does require sprinklers, but they do not require them for every single family home, only those that are four stories or above.

“I’ve heard a lot of information tonight from everybody and I appreciate everybody’s comments and input tonight. It is very easy to use the argument that you can’t put a value on life. Of course, you can’t. But we have to ask ourselves, from a cost of entry, you know for low income folks or for young folks looking to get into the house, to buy a home, this does impact,” Councilman Culotta said. “We can debate all day long about how much the dollar value is but it is an additional cost and there are some other things in the language in terms of training, things like that which are going to add to the cost of building in Milford. I would like to see us follow the lead of the county. When it comes time to say what is required within the county that we consider it as part of our code.”

Councilman Culotta continued that there had been comparisons to Lewes and Milton, but the average home cost in those towns was significantly higher than in Milford which made it easier to absorb the additional cost for sprinklers.

“We are an up and coming city, we are a growing city. We are a city that’s attracting investment, attracting people relocating here, we’re not bursting at the seams yet. So, that is something to consider,” Councilman Culotta said. “And if we really want to get a good idea, then we go the route of incentivization. If the average home is $11,000 in impact fees, we credit back $2,000 if you decide to put these in, it’s up to you, you can do it. We can credit back some cost of your impact fees. Certainly, there’s value in them. But should we mandate at this point? The setback issues, our normal setback, in Milford is eight feet off the property line side of your house. So that’s 16 feet between structures. That’s a pretty good distance. I know the comparison was used was Slaughter Beach, but we don’t have the high winds up here as often as Slaughter Beach does. If we were to allow closer setbacks, as in Simpson Crossing, then fine ,you can mandate sprinklers. But at the current setbacks for a single family home, I think there’s adequate space there.”

Councilman Mike Boyle liked the idea of incentivizing sprinklers but felt it was time to take the steps necessary to protect homes in the city.

“I like Councilman coladas idea of perhaps reducing the impact fees for the device. But you know, I’m old enough and I’ve lived through enough to know that every time a standard has been proposed, we hear the same complaints, that it cost too much mone. We lose sight of the fact what the intention is, whether it is smoke alarms or other features, automobiles in particular. I can remember when seatbelts cost too much to put in cars. But, as a matter of course, I think with all the improvements we’ve had now in the technology to do this and the ability to enhance living conditions, costs will come down as the number of units are built. I will also say that the house next to me, it caught fire with a 20 foot setback. I was outside of the house with a hose trying to keep the embers from igniting my siding. So, I don’t know what the magic number is but I’ve lived through that to know I’m in I’m in favor of the sprinklers, but I like the idea of maybe perhaps a reduction in the impact fee. I think we need to put this off till the next fiscal year. But definitely I think we need to implement this.”

Councilman Jason James stated that his concern was life safety and the response times currently experienced with the low volunteer rates.

“If a person can buy additional time with that sprinkler system being enacted and suppressing that fire and giving the person more time for life, I think that is priceless. While we are in an unprecedented economic situation and we’re trying to stimulate home ownership and we’re trying to encourage Carlisle Fire Company which provides our fire service to focus on putting more efforts to recruiting and response. And it is not solely related to Carlisle, I’m not picking on Carlisle because it’s everywhere. Everywhere. Everybody’s having the same problem. But we have an obligation to the community. This helps. But if we’re really focused on it, and Councilman Culotta makes a good point. Why don’t we incentivize? Why don’t we put some skin in the game to help make it happen? That shows we think it is that important.”

Councilman Fulton saw both sides of the issue, understanding that there was a problem with response times but not seeing how sprinklers would reduce smoke in a fire which was often what caused deaths during a house fire. He also has witnessed people who remained inside trying to fight a fire they were ill equipped for who were then injured or killed. Councilman Fulton felt incentivizing sprinklers up to $5,000 would be a better option than requiring sprinklers in all new construction.

“I agree with Councilman Culotta about incentivizing sprinklers. One way I think it might be feasible, instead of taking a big lump sum which we need for going forward, maybe you could have tax abatement over a 10 year period to make up that money so the impact won’t be as harsh. That’s one idea,” Councilman Dan Marabello said. “The people are buying these single family homes. A lot of them are coming from out of state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. And I know, I came from New Jersey. I know what the taxes I paid there. I had a moderate home, and my taxes were $10,000. They come down here and they got a $2,000 tax bill and if some of that went into a fire sprinkler system. I don’t think that would be an impact.”

Councilman Marabello was also concerned about the response times, believing that it would not be better over time. However, he felt it might be better to defer the decision to July and implement it in January 2024. Council voted unanimously to table the decision and discuss possible incentives for sprinklers as well as a delay in implementation at a future workshop. Councilman James suggested that the workshop be scheduled “sooner rather than later.”











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