Sprinkler bill sets off price alarm

Upgrades to water system would cost city $150 million

February 28, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

Even as they gather support from business owners, residents and fire officials, Annapolis leaders pushing to require sprinklers in new structures are facing a much more difficult challenge: figuring out how to pay the millions of dollars needed to replace the city's antiquated underground plumbing system.

Alderman David H. Cordle Sr., sponsor of the bill to modify the city code to include new homes and cover modifications to existing buildings, said the city is looking for "viable alternative sources of funding, from the city, state, and county."

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the city applied Monday for state assistance with a large infrastructure upgrade that would cost about $150 million.

"To achieve what we want to achieve, the dollars and cents is a serious issue," she said. "We don't have the fiscal capacity to borrow this kind of money, but the state does."

The project, partially paid for with a revolving fund that the city would draw from and pay back annually, would take about 10 years and entail replacing the water and septic systems - including 100-year- old pipes - to ensure that there is adequate capacity and pressure to support sprinklers.

Citywide, about 23 percent of commercial buildings have sprinkler systems, said Capt. Ed Hadaway, a city Fire Department spokesman. About 30 percent of businesses on Main Street have them.

"This is a total refurbishment of the entire streetscape in the historic district," said John E.C. Patmore, the acting director of the city's Public Works Department. "Right now we've lost individual buildings, but God help us if it starts to sweep through several."

In November 2005, a fire destroyed three Main Street buildings, and a blaze in December above another Main Street retailer caused $250,000 worth of damage.

Still, while the danger and benefits are clear, for some, the devil is in the details.

"There's nobody in this community that is not in favor of improved fire prevention in downtown Annapolis," said Chance Walgran, an Annapolis Business Association board member and manager of a clothing store. "Everybody is in favor of it. We just want to make sure that whatever we do makes sense."

While Cordle called the support "overwhelming" yesterday, after a series of meetings, including a public hearing Monday night, an anonymous person or group seems to be waging a campaign to defeat the bill.

Earlier this month, a postcard showed up in mailboxes across Ward 1, which includes the historic district, that incorrectly claimed Cordle's legislation would force all residents to install sprinkler systems and to have complete electrical inspections.

"Take your hands off our homes and wallets Dave," the mailer reads in part. "Say "No" to the Cordle Legislation."

"There is so much misinformation that is being put out there intentionally," Cordle said. "How can we require someone to put in a sprinkler system when we can't provide water for it? My legislation doesn't require that."

Cordle said city officials will continue to meet with business owners and residents in the coming weeks to hammer out details and look at other suppression and fire alarm systems.

The next meeting is scheduled for March 12.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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