Expensive impact for affordable housing project
By Mark Reaman
A tie vote resulted in the Crested Butte Town Council rejecting a staff initiative to extend the exemption for fire suppression sprinkler requirements in new triplexes in Crested Butte. They are currently exempted from duplexes.
The goal was to replace the sprinkler requirement with the requirement for a two-hour firewall between units. The town is permitted to take such action and it would have saved the new Paradise Park affordable housing project about a quarter million dollars. The council will likely now look at subsidizing some or all of those costs.
The idea was brought to the council at the January 22 meeting and some council members asked that the Crested Butte Fire Protection District be consulted on the issue. The CBFPD administration showed up at the February 4 meeting and discouraged the exemption.
“Life and safety are what we do. We are big supporters of sprinklers,” said CBFPD manager Sean Caffrey. “Residential structures are where the biggest loss of life occurs in a fire. Houses are now built very tight and with a lot of synthetics. We support the International Fire Code as written and urge you to keep it.”
Town community development director Michael Yerman said he understood and supported the idea of prioritizing life-safety issues. “But the type of construction we are talking about with two-hour firewalls is very safe. With a sprinkler system the firewalls can be one-hour walls. In this particular project, the money involved is about $250,000. We’ll have to make that up.”
“You can’t put a price on life-safety,” said CBFPD fire inspector Chris Davis. “Sprinklers work really well. It is true that a two-hour firewall is really good but what you lose with a sprinkler mitigation system is something you can’t put a price tag on.”
Fire marshal Ric Ems agreed. “We are in the life-safety business and life and safety is paramount,” he said. “A lot of the products used in construction these days off-gas. It’s the smoke that gets you, not the fire. Sprinklers put all that out in about one and a half minutes. That is quicker than our response time.”
The developer of the affordable housing project, Joel Wisian of Bywater Development LLC, asked the council to weigh the risk-reward benefit. “The cost is between $225,000 and a quarter million dollars to add sprinklers,” he said. “When a sprinkler goes off, it puts out the fire but it also floods the building. And many times if one goes off there is a good chance the neighbor unit sprinkler goes off and gets flooded as well. There are a lot of issues up here with sprinklers.
“You can save lives with a two-hour fire wall, you can save lives with a carbon monoxide detector and you can save lives with a smoke detector. Sprinklers save lives as well,” he continued. “But what is the risk versus the reward? Sprinklers have a great place in certain areas. Triplexes are no different from what you have already excluded from your code with duplexes.”
“Sprinklers these days are meant to be targeted so if there is a fire in the bedroom the sprinkler should only go off in the bedroom,” said Ems in response to the argument.
“No one up here on this board feels like sacrificing lives for any reason. These are hard decisions,” admitted mayor Jim Schmidt.
“I understand building affordability but the National Fire Safety Association says sprinklers save lives,” said councilman Paul Merck.
“I’m extremely happy the town reached out to the fire department,” said councilman Kent Cowherd. “These are the conversations we are supposed to be having. As a firefighter, I know sprinklers are extremely safe. In this situation, the two-hour firewall with smoke detectors and CO detectors would provide a high level of safety. I’m comfortable with that.”
“As you know, affordable housing is a big issue for me but when it comes to life safety, I’d urge the council to err on the side of safety in all cases,” said citizen Jim Starr.
With councilman Jackson Petito missing the meeting, the other six council members split the vote 3-3. Voting to extend the exemption to triplexes were Cowherd, Schmidt and Laura Mitchell. Voting against the extension were Merck, Chris Haver and Will Dujardin.
“We need to keep moving ahead with this project and its design, so we’ll continue with sprinklers going in,” said Yerman. “We will probably come back to the council to ask for help with buying down the costs.”