SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors, on July 6, said they were not in favor of changes to the South Portland fire and protection ordinance that would require sprinklers in some residential renovations and additions.

The council will have a public hearing and final vote on the ordinance during its July 20 meeting, which will include amendments that do not require existing single- or two-family residential units to install sprinklers during some renovation projects.

Language in the ordinance proposed that evening originally required sprinklers in new residential dwelling units and, in some cases, existing dwelling units when the property was undergoing major renovation, said Sally Daggett, corporation counsel. The ordinance was supposed to have gone info effect in October of 2020, but the city council recommended a workshop, which was held in February 2021, to address confusion.

Daggett said after the workshop earlier this year and with guidance from the city council, work was done to logically get at the issue of the requirement for residential sprinklers in the cases of additions or renovations. The requirement only would have applied when the house is being gutted or dramatically expanded.

“It’s going to be pretty difficult for them to trigger the requirement to have the entire house sprinklered or the two-family house sprinklered,” Daggett said.

The drafted ordinance stated that sprinklers were required when the renovation or addition was greater than 800 square feet of gross flooring area and exceeded 50 percent of modified gross flooring area of the building.

Councilor April Caricchio made a motion to amend the ordinance that removed the requirement, and other councilors said they supported it.

“When you think about all of the infrastructure involved, all of the work, all of the points about the financial situation right now, the labor shortage is a huge issue,” Caricchio said. “Maybe it’s just the timing is off.”

She said she hasn’t seen one resident in favor of the requirement.

“I mean, I don’t always make decisions based on that because a lot of times, the people who show up are the people who don’t want something, but I really struggle with having something like this where the expense is absolutely prohibitive for a lot of folks,” Caricchio said.

Phil Notis, a member of the public, said he felt the 800-square-foot requirement in the ordinance was going to impact the size of accessory dwelling units for residents.

“I guess this is well-intentioned, this ordinance, but it’s got some problems,” he said. “It’s not going to achieve the level of saturation the city needed to provide safety.”

The cost to install sprinklers is high, said councilor Deqa Dhalac. Other neighboring communities also rejected a similar ordinance, and the city should investigate why this is the case.

“When this ordinance came in front of us, I think we passionately passed it because of the fact that we balanced the cost and the safety,” Dhalac said. “And the cost at the time, we were told, it was about $6,000 to $10,000 and now it just went up all the way to — we’re talking about $40,000. And also we had a year where a lot has changed. We had a COVID year, where a lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of young people are really struggling.”

Councilor Kate Lewis said the expense does not seem to be necessary for safety purposes.

“More and more, as we’re talking about taxes, as we’re talking about residential revaluations, the expense for this, in my mind, if we had really significant problems with fatalities because we don’t have these sprinkler systems in South Portland, I think that I would be much more interested in forcing the expense that it takes for safety,” Lewis said. “But I’m not convinced based on the evidence we have and what some of the members of the public have been saying, that we have the kind of problem that requires these drastic, drastic changes.”

South Portland Fire Chief James Wilson said he understood the concerns and recommended that the council keep the new build requirement.

“Before you move forward, I would really, really strongly advocate not pulling from new construction,” Wilson said. “I would take a building fire in an old house any day over a new construction. It just goes so quickly, and that was really one of our target areas. My other big concern is we have nonconforming lots where we’re putting houses closer together that are newer.”

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