| Fire board member Peter Carpenter said he knows firsthand that there are illegal basement conversions in Atherton that represent a serious fire risk.
Basements built without adequate fire safety features are one of several areas of concern highlighted in last month's interim report on the Atherton Building Department issued by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.
The report's findings draw a corollary to management problems in the building department and the town's policy of doing its own health and safety reviews, rather than sending building plans to be reviewed by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
Mr. Carpenter, the only Atherton resident who sits on the fire district's Board of Directors, contends that town officials approved building plans for "unimaginably large" basements as unoccupied storage space. Basement storage space has fewer requirements for fire exits than occupied basement living space.
"Most of those basements were immediately remodeled without permits" into living spaces such as media rooms, Mr. Carpenter said in a letter to the Almanac. He called such conversions "absolute fire traps."
"I know of a number of them by my own personal knowledge, not based on my fire board role," he told the Almanac. "You don't want to fink on your friends. I told them, this is very hazardous and you shouldn't do this."
Atherton Mayor Alan Carlson called Mr. Carpenter's comments "irresponsible," and asked how building department officials are supposed to intuit which projects will later be illegally remodeled.
"If someone comes in with plans that indicate that a basement is for storage, then the plans are reviewed for that," Mr. Carlson said. "If someone then comes along and modifies it, there's nothing the town can do unless it's reported to the town."
Mr. Carpenter is proposing a radical solution to finding fire code scofflaws: create a joint team of town and fire district building inspectors, and use the fire district's authority under state law to conduct inspections with or without the property owner's consent. He said he plans to present his inspection team idea at the next fire district board of directors meeting.
Fire safety review
Mr. Carlson has criticized the grand jury report and staunchly defended Atherton and its right to do its own health and safety reviews of building plans.
Under the law, the responsibility for reviewing plans for health and safety codes is the town's responsibility unless it formally delegates that responsibility to its fire department, Mr. Carlson said.
"The fire district never asked for a delegation of that authority. So that answers that," he said.
As for local examples, Mr. Carlson points to the city of Menlo Park, which also does not submit single-family home plans to the fire district for review. The fire protection district includes Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and some unincorporated neighborhoods.
"That's what Menlo Park does, so Menlo Park must also be in violation," he said.
In fact, on that one point, Mr. Carpenter is in agreement with Mr. Carlson.
"Two wrongs don't make a right," Mr. Carpenter said. "Both Atherton and Menlo Park have failed to fulfill their responsibility to their citizens."
"The fundamental issue is that (both towns) perceive the district as an irritant rather than as part of their team," he said.
Mr. Carpenter contends that, over the years, fire district officials have repeatedly approached Atherton about reviewing building plans.
"The town of Atherton has consistently rebuffed us, and now Mr. Carlson has the gall to say that they never asked," he said.
Speaking by phone from New York, Mr. Carpenter said he did not have specifics on which town officials the district made its request to, but said he believed it was the town's building official.
The safety of residents in both Atherton and Menlo Park would be better served by having the fire district review all building plans, Mr. Carpenter said.
In the wake of the grand jury report, Atherton officials said the town is currently sending all its building plans to the district, and a joint meeting between the City Council and the district's board of directors is in the works. Atherton officials said that at the yet-to-be scheduled meeting, they will work with the district to hash out a mutually agreeable policy on building plan reviews, as well as other issues.
The interim grand jury report, released Feb. 7, calls for immediate action to address health and safety issues in the town's home-building projects, stemming from the building department's management problems under former building official Mike Hood. The report contends that many building plans were not reviewed for fire safety, and recommends that Atherton immediately submit all building plans approved during Mr. Hood's 11-year tenure to the fire district to be retroactively reviewed.
Atherton council members, responding publicly to the grand jury report at the Feb. 21 council meeting, objected to going through hundreds of old building plans, and said if the fire district wanted to conduct such an extensive review, it should pay for it.
District officials said they are willing to do the plan reviews, but they expect Atherton to cover the cost.
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