Leoni Dobbins' quixotic quest to tilt the windmill of Payson's fire code so she can cook soup at the Red Elephant Bakery took a detour through a different fairy tale Wednesday, Jan. 2 at a polite but frustrating meeting of the town's Building Advisory Board that had a definite whiff of Alice in Wonderland.
The discussion at Wednesday's appeal before the board sometimes resembled that croquet game from Alice in Wonderland, played with talking flamingos for mallets, as the board debated its authority to debate a fire marshal's ruling that could put Dobbins out of business.
The original issue seemed straightforward enough: Some 11 months ago, the the town fire marshal inspected the Red Elephant Bakery and discovered that the stove on which Dobbins mostly cooked vegetarian soup lacked the $15,000 cooking hood with the automatic grease fire suppression system required by the fire code.
After that, things got curiouser and curiouser.
After many delays, protests and confusion, Dobbins' case came before the Payson town council.
A sympathetic council directed Chief Building Official Ray LaHaye and Payson Fire Chief Marti deMasi to work out some cheaper alternative for the bakery's stove that was still consistent with the spirit of the fire code. DeMasi delegated the task to Fire Marshal Robert Lockhart.
LaHaye and Lockhart drew up a draft memo that would allow businesses seating fewer than 20 customers with a cooking area of less than 400 square feet to install a potentially cheaper Class II hood on the stove, with a fire extinguisher at the ready. The draft agreement also would require an electrical cutoff switch for the stove.
Dobbins and building owner Cliff Potts, a former town mayor, embraced the compromise -- which came back before the council in December. But when the council asked LaHaye if he supported the exemption to the code, he declined -- saying he didn't think the compromise solution complied with the town's existing building and fire codes.
So instead of voting, the council sent the case back to the volunteer Building Advisory Board to rule on Dobbins' appeal of the fire marshal's original opinion -- and presumably to talk about the compromise solution.
At the Jan. 2 meeting, the sympathetic but frustrated Building Advisory Board members mostly debated whether to debate the actual issue -- the adequacy of the Class II hood.
"We made a recommendation to the council and the council has passed -- we are not a body able to make changes. We're merely following the law in Payson," said Board Chairman Jon Barber, himself a contractor.
"We're not here to ruin businesses, we're here to see if what the inspectors found matched the code. Please don't think we're saying ‘no' because we're against small businesses."
"But these two gentlemen (LaHaye and Lockhart) made this draft," said Carolyn Stanley, who owns the building along with Potts.
"It was not their recommendation," corrected Barber.
"But this draft is before the board," said Stanley.
"No," said Barber. "That would be a whole separate meeting."
"We were the ones who drafted it," interjected LaHaye in an attempt to clarify, "but it was on an order from the council."
"Do you support it?" asked Stanley, now clearly confused.
"I can't support it because it does not comply with the code," said LaHaye carefully.
Board can't change the code
"What the board is saying is they can't make an exception to the code. As the appeals board, they can't change the code. The responsibility of the board is to ensure that the Payson fire and building officials have interpreted the code consistently with the intent of the code."
"So this is dead and gone?' said Stanley, gesturing vaguely with the draft agreement.
"I don't know where it sits in the process," said Barber.
"This is very frightening to me," complained Stanley. "This seem like a fun way to spend two hours, but when it goes to the council, one person's vote could determine her future."
Barber said that he has championed easing regulations for small businesses on many issues, but not when it comes to the fire code.
"I don't believe you can look at life safety issues and not have a standard you go by."
"But her business is not addressed by the code," said Stanley, insisting that the Red Elephant Bakery's tiny operation could never generate the kind of grease fire the elaborate commercial hood with a fire suppression system is designed to guard against.
"I've taken a lot of time with this and gotten nowhere," said the frustrated Stanley.
"I've lived in this town for 26 years and I can tell you, my kitchen is more dangerous than her business."
Board sends appeal back to council
In the end, the board voted unanimously to reject the appeal, mostly on the grounds the town's ordinances don't give the board any authority to make such a decision.
The board can only review whether the fire marshal correctly interpreted the existing code, which wasn't the issue raised by the compromise agreement. Only the council can waive or rewrite the code, noted Barber.
The issue now goes back to the council once again, with none of the key issues resolved. Board members advised Dobbins to get several bids on installing a new or used Class II hood, to determine the real cost difference between the two options, before the council has to make a ruling at its Jan. 10 meeting.
Former mayor Potts, who owns the building and has been lobbying for the compromise, expressed his frustration after the meeting.
"This is the sort of cottage industry Payson has been trying to attract. To put such cost burdens on a small operation is just not achievable."
But Barber said that hundreds of hours and sometimes tragic experience had gone into devising the current fire code and that making piecemeal exemptions and revisions could lead to lawsuits and deaths.
"There's a reason those codes were written they way they are," he said.
But he also understood the frustration of the owners.
"The appeal should have been filed 11 months ago when the fire marshal first made his ruling, to get a clear decision. On the other hand, the city didn't just shut her down and everyone has been trying to find a solution. This board is just pretty much limited as to what we can do."