Fire Code Petition Backers Move Ahead

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Rim country merchants say they are encouraged by the town's recent efforts to involve developers in an ongoing assessment of impact fees and code compliance costs but they're not ready to give up on their drive to have fire code amendments placed on the ballot.

The group filed its petition late last year, asking to place the recently adopted amendments, mostly relating to sprinkler systems, on the next general election ballot.

According to Town Clerk Sylvia Smith, the required 290 signatures necessary for a referendum 10 percent of those who voted in the last election have been verified, and the issue is scheduled to be placed on the ballot in March 2002.

Since the petitions were turned in, however, the town council voted to expand the Building Advisory Board from five to seven members representing a broader cross section of the building trades. The council also increased that board's responsibilities to include reviewing and making recommendations for revising development codes.

Two of the leaders of the petition drive, Ray Pugel and Blair Meggitt, say their group welcomes the town initiative but is taking a wait-and-see attitude before agreeing to have the fire code issue removed from the ballot.

While Pugel said the group "naturally wants to give the town a chance to address the issue," he has heard rumblings that there may be some resistance among town staff.

"We would prefer not to go to a full-blown election, but we have feedback saying some of the bureaucrats in town are refusing to look at impact fees," Pugel said.

Meggitt said that expanding the committee is a good idea, especially when it means that more disciplines in the building trades are included in the process, but he thinks many issues besides sprinklers need to be addressed.

According to local builder Steve Johnson, owner of SRJ Homes, in addition to impact fees for sewers, water, streets and parks, all collected by the town building department at the time a permit is issued, builders must also comply with codes and regulations for general building, fire safety, utilities, streets and subdivisions.

The fire code was amended in October to mandate automatic sprinklers for all new commercial buildings 3,000 square feet or larger. The amendment also allows building officials and the fire chief the option of requiring sprinkler systems in renovated buildings that have been enlarged by 40 percent or more and exceed 3,000 square feet or that cost more than $500,000 to remodel, and to mandate sprinkler systems in existing homes that are increased in size 40 percent to more than 3,000 square feet.

The referendum action has caused these amendments to be suspended.

Meggitt said the expanded Building Advisory Board needs to make sure that national codes are adapted to local circumstances. "Too often, we get a national code and don't make it applicable to the area," he said. "Those are only guidelines, and we need to delete the things that don't apply to Payson."

According to Payson Fire Chief John Ross, that has already been done with the sprinkler code changes. "These amendments have been debated by the public and members of the Building Advisory Committee," he said.

Originally, the fire department wanted to require sprinklers in all new buildings, in keeping with the 1997 Public Safety Master Plan produced for the town by David M. Griffith and Associates. But because the fire department was capable of mitigating fires in smaller buildings with its current resources, the Building Advisory Board would only support amendments with a 3,000-square-foot threshold. According to Ross, other factors considered included expenses, consistency with other communities, fairness, operations and public safety. With those issues resolved to the Building Advisory Board's satisfaction, that body joined with the fire department in recommending adoption of the amendments.

"Based upon documented information acquired over several decades from numerous professional organizations and studies, fire sprinklers have proven to be reliable, cost effective, unobtrusive and valuable," Ross said. By (putting sprinklers in) all structures 3,000 square feet or larger, Payson not only gains a more effective fire department and therefore greater public safety, he said, but also reduction of insurance rates for all businesses, and a way to share fire suppression costs between new development and the operating budget of the town.

Ross indicated that sprinkler systems cost $1 to $1.50 per square foot to install in new buildings, but more in renovated structures. "In remodels the cost goes up to $2 to $3 per square foot," Ross said.

But sprinkler systems in commercial buildings generally pay for themselves in about five years. "Those behind the petition are more concerned about residential systems that take many years to pay off," he said.

The fire chief reports that emotions seem to be subsiding and that a good dialog has begun over the issue. "We've had some meetings and we've learned a lot from each other," he said.

Pugel points out that time is of the essence. "If you look at building permits, you can see that construction activity has pretty much come to a halt," he said.

According to town statistics, there were a total of 243 construction starts in 2000, including single family, manufactured homes, multi-family and commercial. This compares with 281 starts in 1999 and 235 in 1998. The highest number of starts since 1985 was 390 in 1997.

"The council needs to move fast ... to get our economy on track," Pugel said. If that happens, his group will "pull back" the petition initiative. To do that the group would merely have to send a letter to the town clerk requesting the item be removed from the ballot, according to the Secretary of State's office.

In the meantime, new commercial buildings over 3,000 square feet may not have to have sprinklers depending on occupancies at certain square footages, while residential structures over that threshold will continue to require sprinklers under an ordinance adopted in 1998. Without the 40 percent threshold for remodels and add-ons, the decision to require sprinklers rests with the fire chief and building officials on a case-by-case basis.

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