Council votes to require fire sprinkler systems in residential construction

After a significant amount of discussion and a number of failed motions and amendments, the Edmonds City Council Tuesday night approved an ordinance that requires installation of residential fire sprinkler systems in new construction of one-family and two-family homes and townhouses that are 3,000 square feet or larger in size.

The issue came before council to comply with state building code after a 2009 International Residential Code advisory group wrote fire sprinkler requirements for all residential construction, including townhouses and single-family dwellings. Edmonds in 1988 had instituted in its code sprinkler requirements for apartment but there was nothing on the books for single-family residences.  The council’s Public Safety Committee had been meeting since April with representatives of various groups with an interest in the change, including fire officials, builders, real estate agents and sprinkler system installers.

Edmonds Fire Marshal John Westfall set the stage with a presentation to councilmembers on the value of such sprinklers in terms of saving lives and property. “Home fire sprinklers in combination with smoke alarms reduce the risk of deaths in homes by fire by 82 percent relative to having neither,” Westfall said. Compared to smoke detectors, sprinklers “provide an entirely different level of protection to people,” he noted, adding that smoke detectors alert people to fire but sprinklers give them a chance to get out safely by limiting smoke and fire damage.

As a result of those Public Safety Committee discussions, two identical ordinances were brought to Council with different square footage requirements — 3,000 or 5,000 — with the idea that the council would chose one of them. The homes in question are admittedly large — in fact, from 2007-2010 in Edmonds there were just five new homes of 5,000 or more square feet built and a total of 32 new homes built at 3,000 square feet or larger. The reasoning for not applying the code to smaller homes was twofold: Fires in larger homes pose a greater danger both to residents and firefighters, and advocates of affordable housing feared that the additional cost of installing fire sprinklers may put more affordable, smaller homes out of the reach of moderate-income home buyers.

The council took public testimony during a hearing. Ryan McIrvin, government affairs director for the Snohomish County Camano Island Association of Realtors, said his organization questioned the need for the sprinklers at all, describing the proposed ordinance as “a bit like using a bazooka for a fly swatter.” Edmonds resident Michael Echelbarger, former president of the Master Builders Association, added the sprinkler requirement was “like having a belt on and wearing suspenders too.”

After wide-ranging discussion, though, some on the council started questioning whether it would be better to require fire sprinklers on all new residential construction, regardless of square footage. That led to the idea that perhaps a new public hearing should be scheduled altogether, since the option of covering all homes under the law wasn’t included in the original council agenda information — and it wouldn’t be fair to those who didn’t have a chance to testify.

In the end, the council adopted a proposal to use a 3,000-square-foot threshold when requiring new construction to include a fire sprinkler system.

In other action, the council:

– Delayed until next week consideration of an ordinance related to perimeter buffers and their relationship to planned residential developments.

– Adopted a 1-percent increase in the 2011 property tax and emergency medical services levies and voted to continue the debt service levy for the Public Safety Complex at its current level.

– Authorized the city to advertise for bids to finish construction on the Interurban Trail, located in the Lake Ballinger neighborhood. Public Works Director Phil Williams noted that staff was able to add a significant environmental improvement to the design of the trail in recent months: It will now include 2,200 feet of pervious path, which will better absorb water and minimize runoff into the Lake Ballinger drainage basin.

– Approved the 2010-11 Capital Facilities Plan and Capital Improvement Project (CIP), with one addition to the CIP from Councilmember Lora Petso: a public market facility that could be included in the city’s Comprehensive Plan next year.

– Approved an updated compensation policy for non-represented employees.

Council tidbits:

Councilmembers D.J. Wilson and Adrienne Fraley-Monillas both voted against renewing the city’s contract with the Edmonds City Prosecutor, specifically citing her failure to charge anyone with a crime in the cutting down last summer of the 60-year-old Douglas Fir tree on city right-of-way at 3rd and Walnut. The contract was approved on a 5-2 vote.

During the audience comment period, Edmonds resident Don Hall took Council President Steve Bernheim to task for his decision to remove “No Dogs Allowed” signs from the pathway along Sunset Avenue before a law authorizing such a change had taken effect. “It seems to me that Councilmember Bernheim has little regard for ordinances he doesn’t like,” Hall said.

The Council quickly passed an ordinance  a resolution, referred to as 1237, that was not on the agenda and was not explained to the those in the audience. My Edmonds News has asked for more detail on that, and will share it once we learn more.

  1. Thank you for such a thorough explanation of what’s happening at city council. This website is truly a community gem!

  2. Just curious as to how a “mystery ordinance” gets passed without being on the agenda and without the public even knowing what it is. Any one want to enlighten me?

    1. I was just informed that the vote in question was on a resolution 1237 rather than an ordinance, which would require a public hearing. I still don’t have any details on what the resolution did, but am working on that.

  3. Wow. Kinda two-faced when you consider they exempted the Public Safety building from having them put in when it was built.

  4. DJ, the Council noise maker, is almost always wrong, and has once again wildly jumped the tracks.

    The City Prosecutor will not and should not bring charges until suffiicent evidence is supplied by poice investigation.

    DJ’s latest personal attack on a fellow Council person was probably thorougly investigated under the watchful eye of police Chief Compaan and reasonably found to be lacking by our proficient City Prosecutor. The Prosecutor has in my opinion made a just and lawful decision including saving all from a waste of time and resources. Its good and fair that the Council supports the Prosecutor.

    What will be DJ’s next episode?

  5. @Mr. Martin,
    I agree with you that firing the City Prosecutor for failing to file charges in any given case is wrong. How much that has to do with Mr. Wilson, is not clear to me but he did apparently vote for it. As to the Bernheim matter, I have been told that that has been turned over to the Snohomish County Prosecutor to determine if charges will be filed, due to the conflict of interests involved.

  6. Diane, 1. DJ has been busy accusing people in both cases. 2. Some time ago I met with Mr. Roe to ask him why he wasn’t investigating a Councilman I had accused of violating one of our ordinances.

    He patiently explained to me the very real need to spend his time working on murders, rapes, deadly assaults, that sort of thing, so he didn’t feel able, time wise, to get tangled up in an Edmonds ordinance minor political complaint. And that made sense to me then and now. Besides Mayor H quickly got the Council to cancel the offended ordinance to protect his buddy and short circuit me.

    I may be wrong, but I doubt Mr. Roe or his office will now have the time for the confused Edmonds tree incident, based upon my experience. More likely he might suggest a civil action.

  7. The discussion at the start of the meeting about requiring fire sprinkler systems in single family homes appeared to drain a considerable amount of energy out of most council members. By 11 pm when they got to the most important agenda item, the 2011 budget, there was so little time spent on it that Teresa never even covered it in her above report. And I suspect that the successful motion requiring sprinklers in homes 3,000 sq ft or greater was a violation of Roberts Rules, because an earlier motion for the 3,000 sq ft requirement had failed – so the new motion needed to be a motion to reconsider, and it wasn’t.

    When council got to the agenda item on the Non-Represented Employee salary policy, most members, if not all, had very valid concerns about the policy. This new policy was established in April 2007 when council passed it by a vote of 4 to 3. The only survivor of that council is Council member Plunkett; he voted against the new policy as did Dave Orvis and Ron Wambolt. Back then I was unsuccessful in getting council to hire a compensation consultant; hopefully this council will proceed in that direction in the next few months.

  8. Having watched the video there was no “mystery ordinance or resolution”. It may not have been on the agenda or added later but the resolution was about indemnification and it’s content was clear and discussed at the meeting. No mystery about it.

  9. Diane – the term “mystery” was used in a Tweet last night, somewhat tongue-in-cheek because the matter wasn’t on the agenda and the background wasn’t immediately available, so I had no way of verifying the content (something I always rely on before tweeting info). I wish I would have had the benefit of watching the videotape before I posted the story at 1 a.m.

  10. It should be noted that the addtion of a public market to the city’s planning was a 7-0 vote to put a market on the waterfront. The city not only does not have the ability to fund such a project, it also doesn’t have such an abundance of revenue that it wouldn’t suffer from property being taken off of the tax rolls.

    Some council members need to some day wake up to the fact that lots of things are nice to have, but they should be focusing themselves on what the city needs and can afford.

  11. Well if you think that home construction is down now making homes have sprinkler systems is only going to make it worse. I personally thought that that fire thing that whole thing was pretty silly, Most homes are not over 2 stories and most homes have a lot of water located near bye. a 25 to 50 story building on the otherhand does not that is where you need those things. Those fire sprinkler systems are expensive and very high maintance and if you accidently break one of those things you cause thousands of dollars of damage in just a few minutes. I just don’t think that the city council should be voting on things that they really do not know much about, was there ever a presantation on a home that had one

  12. @Mike. The issues of aging sprinkler systems and system failures were not explored. Damages from the systems going off (which could be extensive) was not addressed. The Council left themselves the option to revisit requiring sprinklers for all new residential construction , making it more problematic if you are a builder. Thinking things through and considering the consequences isn’t the specialty of this Council. The “group think” was simply; fire bad, sprinklers must save lives…”choice should not be left to consumer”. But the consumer will ultimately have the choice not to buy a home in Edmonds.

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