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Sprinkler exemption proposal for triplexes goes to public hearing

Chances of passage don’t look promising however

By Mark Reaman

The Crested Butte Town Council is not done talking about fire suppression sprinklers in new affordable triplex units. A public hearing is set for March 18 for people to weigh in with the council, possibly extending an exemption that applies to duplexes in town where fire suppression sprinkler systems are not mandatory.

The issue appeared to be settled last month when a tie vote by the council resulted in the exemption not being granted to triplexes. But councilman Chris Haver, who had voted against extending the regulation, wanted to reconsider the issue when he was told the cost of the sprinklers in the triplexes going in at Paradise Park. Town community development director Michael Yerman said the costs to put sprinklers in the 15 triplex units would be about $262,000.

Developer Joel Wisian of Bywater Development said despite some unofficial price quotes that indicated sprinkler systems could be installed for $2 to $4 per square foot, the cost was actually much higher with the addition of other essential elements, such as excavation to install a water line from the town main and putting in the needed alarms.

Yerman said after talking to longtime respected builders in town, he learned the actual cost was averaging about $17,500 per unit. “Not a single contractor came close to that $4 per square foot number being discussed,” he said.

“Part of the cost comes from the fact these are all individual units,” added Wisian. “There are 15 separate sprinkler systems, which make it more expensive compared to, say, a high-rise. But we will be happy to do whatever you want. More than half the project will need sprinklers. We won’t put them in the 12 duplex units. They will get a two-hour firewall, which is also very safe.”

“These apply to townhomes and not stacked units or condos,” Yerman said. “A townhouse is basically a single-family home with a shared wall. Understand that I have great respect for the life/safety issue. We are talking about using very safe construction. There would be a two-hour firewall, egress from bedrooms and mandatory smoke detectors.”

“The staff position is not that you shouldn’t consider the life/safety issue,” said town manager Dara MacDonald. “We understand the safety element that sprinklers provide. We make choices every day based on costs and benefits. So where does the council fall? We will go either way.”

“It is a tough decision,” said mayor Jim Schmidt. “We understand fire suppression sprinklers are much safer. But every year people die on Highway 135 and if we wanted to prevent that from happening we would lower the speed limit there to 25 miles per hour. But we don’t.”

Crested Butte Fire Protection District operations chief Rob Weisbaum said department officials understood the dilemma of adding costs for affordable housing. “But our priority is life/safety. The statistics show that fires can grow quickly. Our average response time is about ten minutes from call to the scene and fires can spread rapidly in that time.”

“Everyone agrees sprinkler systems can save lives,” said councilman Paul Merck. “We don’t have many house fires in town anymore and it comes down to cost. But as Ric Ems explained last time, it’s not just fire but the smoke and gases released in fires. I understand we all want affordable housing and we’ll cut things to get it affordable, but if it means cutting life/safety elements, I’m not on board.”

Councilman Jackson Petito said he was always looking for ways to cut costs to make housing more affordable, but not in this case.

“I don’t think it is worth it,” added new Town Council representative Candice Bradley.

“I look at it like buying a car,” said Haver. “I didn’t buy the most expensive or the safest car but I bought what I could afford and it was safe.”

“I’m not comfortable reconsidering this to save money over safety,” said councilman Will Dujardin. “With this big winter my bedroom window is blocked by snow so I wouldn’t mind having a sprinkler system.”

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell moved to set the proposed ordinance that would exempt triplexes from needing the sprinkler systems for public hearing on March 18. It passed 4-3 with Mitchell, Haver, Schmidt and Bradley voting for it and Dujardin, Merck and Petito voting against it. Bradley indicated she was willing to set the hearing to see if there was more input from the public on the matter. Another discussion on the issue will take place March 18.

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