Commissioners Question Staff on Building Sprinkler Regulations

Scott Franklin
Franklin

A city staff proposal to reword a fire-safety ordinance on sprinklers met a firewall of commissioner opposition Friday morning.

After a lengthy discussion about cost impediments the city may be erecting that prevent renovations to historic downtown buildings, commissioners decided to delay acting until staff provides more information.

City Fire Marshal Cheryl Edwards explained that there had recently been misinterpretation of city code that for the past 30 years staff has interpreted as saying automatic sprinklers are required for new or renovated structures of more than 12,000 square feet. The ordinance could be misinterpreted as saying the sprinkler are required on new structures or renovations of more than 12,000 square foot per floor, she said.

City Commissioner Scott Franklin said that he is familiar with the project in question and his interpretation is the city is not being fair to the business.

“People purchase property based on what they think they have to do to make a financial model work,” Franklin said. “But because of our ambiguity we want to tighten the rules on them.”

“I get fire safety,” Franklin said. “No one wants to endanger one of buildings. But I also want to know what is the typical cost of retrofitting a building. I know it is extremely expensive.”

And, Franklin asked, “How many structures will never get updated now because we are going to put an absolutely prohibitive expense on them? What is going on is not fair.”

Edwards said that for 30 years, the Fire Department has been interpreting the ordinance to read 12,000 square feet for the entire structure, not per floor.

The definition of gross floor area is different under the fire code than how the general public may interpret it, Edwards said. So, at the request of the city manager, staff wanted to clarify to ordinance.

The issue comes up when a business has not talked with the fire department and clarified what is needed, she said.

City Attorney Palmer Davis said that people could read the current ordinance in different ways.

“You are saying people are misinterpreting it.” Franklin said, adding, “It does not matter what is intended; what does the ordinance say now?”

Following more questioning by commissioners, Edwards explained that the rules for automatic sprinklers vary among jurisdictions. Some cities and counties require sprinklers on buildings as small as 4,000 square feet. In Lakeland, there are variations for how the building is used; for example the rules are different for a retail store, a warehouse, a school or an assemblage.

And, Edwards said, state law does not require sprinklers at all in warehouses and industrial buildings, even the extremely large structures that are common in and near Lakeland. So cities and counties have put in their own fire safety regulations, she said.

The city’s automatic sprinkler rule applies only on a new structure or for an existing structure when the use changes or when the square footage is being expanded, not for simple remodeling, such as adding a wall to create a restroom or a kitchen, Edwards said.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden said she wants to understand how much the cost of meeting the fire code and building codes adds up to making it cost-prohibitive to renovate downtown historic buildings.

“We have all these beautiful buildings being left unkempt, not being revamped. First they say it is parking, but then they say they cannot make it work financially. If you are changing to a restaurant then you have to add a grease trap, then you have to add the sprinkler system. The math does not work for people who want to have a business downtown.”

Edwards said that several of the vacant buildings downtown have sprinkler systems, so that is not the only impediment. And, under some occupancies, such as where there are assemblages of large groups of people, the sprinkler rules would kick in under the state building code even before they would kick in under the city ordinance.

Madden said that since commissioners are discussing the costs associated with renovating historic buildings, it may be time to explore ways the city can ease the burden.

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said that the rules sound vague, varying among cities, counties and the state.

“We need to be as flexible as possible as far as building and fire permitting.” McCarley said. “We don’t want to keep burdens and hurdles in the way. We don’t want to go five or 10 years down the road and have more empty buildings.”

Mayor Bill Mutz said that while the city wants to make things as palatable as possible for the business community, “we want to maintain safety. One of the wonderful things we have in this generation is buildings don’t burn down as often. Fire inspections are part of that.”

The city needs to continue to create opportunity to certain tenants through the Community Redevelopment Agency and to continue redevelopment efforts but also take the safety side into consideration, Mutz said.

“We are the lawmakers,” Franklin said. “Shame on us if there is ambiguity. People base business decisions based on what is written in the law. We cannot keep moving the goalpost. What we do down here is not subject to personal whims on what whoever is on staff but what the law says.”

Commissioner Bill Read made a motion to table the proposed ordinance because of the unknowns and ambiguities. “I would like for us to look at it some more so we get it right and so we have a thorough understanding of what we are going to pass and how it impacts the citizens as well as the fire department and public safety.”

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Chad McLeod said he would like to see where Lakeland’s regulations fall in relation to other communities. “If we have done it this way for 30 years, it may be the best approach today but it may not be. Should we be following state code more closely?”

City staff is expected to study the issues raised and report back to get direction from the commission about policy changes.

Video of Friday’s discussion:

Agenda Study & Committees 2020.03.13 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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