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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Fire sprinkler plan back before council Fire sprinkler plan back before council (April 07, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

A plan by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to require automatic fire sprinklers to be installed in most new homes and many homes undergoing major remodeling is heading back to the City Council on Tuesday, April 13.

Council members mulled over the proposal in January, but were concerned about a heavy cost burden for residents and business owners. Similar ordinances have been passed in Atherton and East Palo Alto.

As before, both fire district and city staff agree on most pieces of the proposal: sprinklers would have to be installed in new buildings -- including single-family homes -- of more than 1,000 square feet; in all new buildings with a basement of 250 square feet or greater; and in existing buildings where a basement is being added.

But there are two different recommendations regarding remodels. Fire district officials want to require sprinklers in all buildings of more than 2,500 square feet that undergo remodels or expansions exceeding 50 percent of the existing square footage.

City staff, though, want a 75 percent threshold that would apply to buildings of all sizes.

"We've seen remodels on the level of 50 percent where they're not really doing that extensive work. Therefore, that requirement would be a bit onerous from our point of view," City Manager David Boesch said.

Putting in sprinklers could require ripping open ceilings and upgrading water lines, something that might not have been included in a remodel, he added.

Fire district officials are pushing for the more stringent requirement, saying the costs are worth it because sprinklers can prevent loss of life and property in a fire.

"This is not a cost issue. This is a life safety issue," fire district board member Peter Carpenter told the council in January.

Installing sprinklers in a new home costs on average about $1.55 per square foot, according to Building Industry Association statistics cited in a city staff report in January. Costs would be far greater for putting sprinklers into an existing home as part of a remodeling project: perhaps $10,000 to $20,000 in a home of 2,500 square feet, the report reads. Costs vary by contractor and type of sprinkler head used.

Many insurance companies give clients with a sprinkler system a discount on fire coverage rates, fire officials say. A spokesman with State Farm Insurance told the Almanac in December that his company gives a 10 percent discount if the system is installed throughout the home and 5 percent if it's in just a few rooms.

The fire district originally also recommended requiring sprinklers in structures of less than 2,500 square feet undergoing remodels or expansions exceeding 75 percent of the current square footage, but backed off after it became clear that city officials wouldn't support it, Fire Marshal Geoffrey Aus said.

In a staff report for the April 12 council meeting, fire district officials are also providing detailed information about structure fires in the city from 1998 through 2003.

According to the report, on average, 31 fires and 3.3 fire-related injuries occurred each year. Annual property loss averaged about $751,000 (not including the $5 million loss in a 2001 fire in a commercial and condominium project on Merrill Street).

This report is scheduled to be posted on the city's Web site at www.menlopark.org by the end of this week.

The council meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 801 Laurel St.


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