Fire safety rules sought in Annapolis Historic District buildings would need sprinkler systems

City may help financially

Panel seeking action was formed after fire downtown last year

July 23, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

All residential and commercial buildings in Annapolis' Historic District would be required to have sprinkler systems, or at least be monitored by computerized fire detection systems, under regulations proposed by a city fire safety panel.

The 11-member Commission to Study Fire Safety, created after a five-alarm blaze destroyed a 98-year-old building on historic Main Street in December, also said building owners, rather than tenants, should be responsible for the costly installation, according to a source close to the commission.

The commission voted against releasing a copy of its report yesterday but is expected to present its findings Monday to the city council, which will use the report to draft legislation. The legislation could be in place by fall, Mayor Dean L. Johnson said.

City officials are looking for ways to help property owners pay for the systems, including offering grants or property tax credits or establishing a revolving loan fund, Johnson said.

"The one I hope would work best is a long-term, low-interest loan, which, if done over a 20-year period, becomes almost a grant," Johnson said.

"Of course, the question we're facing is how do we offer it? How do we make it affordable to everyone and how do we encourage those who haven't done it to step forward? I would hope we find these answers as soon as possible."

The state code allows municipalities to offer property owners tax credits for installation of fire safety systems.

Johnson has asked Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary to contribute county money to a revolving fund, according to Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman.

The fire Dec. 9 destroyed 184-186 Main St., a building that stretched to State Circle and housed a restaurant, shops and offices. It also kindled fears about the vulnerability of the city's historic buildings, which lie nestled together, most built with wooden frames and filled with outdated wiring and few with sprinkler systems.

"The physical condition of this city is a problem," said Harry Klasmeier, chairman of the commission and the county fire administrator from 1964 to 1983. "It's an old city with a lot of old buildings.

"We'd like to have a cover over the entire city with sprinkler systems," he said. "But what we've done is certainly tighten up what's there in the laws now. This is about enforcing it."

The Annapolis fire code is based on the BOCA National Fire Prevention Code and Life Safety Code, which requires smoke detectors in all dwellings and smoke detectors, alarms or sprinklers in most new commercial buildings.

The code does not apply to old commercial buildings unless they are remodeled or renovated; the use changes from residential to commercial; a new business moves in; or they contain hazards "inimical to the public safety."

Some downtown landlords say they fear the changes the commission is recommending would create huge financial burdens that could trickle down to their tenants in the form of higher rents.

"I don't want these buildings to burn down any more than anybody else," said Brian Calahan, owner of 49 West Coffeehouse, which does not have sprinklers. "But I'm an owner and an occupier. That would make it really tough on me."

He said he is willing to add sprinklers but hopes the city will help ease the financial burden.

"If not, I think there might be a lot of opposition," Calahan said.

Commission sources say other recommendations include studying the idea of limiting parking on narrow streets to allow emergency vehicles access to buildings and altering the city building code to allow the use of alternative fire retardant materials.

More expensive recommendations include hiring a licensed fire protection engineer to review building plans for fire safety and ensuring that the Fire Department has staff to conduct building inspections.

Fire officials have long conceded that some buildings have never been inspected because of staff shortages.

The commission also advised adopting a water supply study conducted for the Public Works Department, which recommended building another water tower and upgrading the power supply to the pumping station.

Also recommended was putting funding back into the city budget to repair inoperative fire hydrants.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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