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Sprinkler code still simmering in Alexandria

Alexandria City Council member Todd Jensen said the council's decision whether to repeal a section of city code that requires stricter installations of sprinkler systems than the state building code boils down to saving lives or saving contractors a few bucks.

The issue will have to boil a little longer.

By a 4-1 vote Monday night, the council approved Virgil Batesole's request to table the issue to get more information from City Attorney Tom Jacobson about what the city can and can't do about state rules governing sprinkler systems.

It's the second straight meeting the issue has been tabled.

Alexandria approved a more stringent state ordinance, known as Chapter 1306, in 2004 to provide a higher level of fire safety. It was originally developed by fire chiefs who wanted to decrease fire losses. A total of 55 communities in the state have adopted it.

Not everyone is a fan of Chapter 1306, however. Some builders say it's too expensive and its regulations go too far.

Before the issue was tabled Monday, council member Bobbie Osterberg asked Jacobson if the city could rescind Chapter 1306 and create its own "hybrid" code that addresses some of the concerns the council has about Chapter 1306.

Jacobson said that state statute requires Chapter 1306 to be adopted without amendments so it would be difficult for the city to "end run" it by enacting similar rules. He added that he would need to dig a little deeper into exactly what parts of Chapter 1306 the council wanted and didn't want.

City Administrator Marty Schultz said the council could run into an issue if it adopts rules that stray from the state building code, because the code supersedes city ordinances.

After the council's 4-1 vote to table — with Osterberg casting the only "no" vote — Mayor Sara Carlson said the issue will be discussed again at a work session that will include Jacobson.

During a public hearing at the council's last meeting on June 25, Eric Nyberg, representing the Vikingland Builders Association, said that many builders in the area think that Chapter 1306 adds too much cost to building projects. He said the sprinkler requirements have stopped a lot of projects.

Nyberg cited an example of a nursery that wanted to add on to its greenhouse but didn't pursue it after finding out it would have to sprinkle its entire building.

Nyberg added that some garage units for apartments are built smaller so they wouldn't have to be sprinkled.

Chapter 1306 kicks in when the use of the building changes or when a new building is constructed. It applies to:

• Assembly-type occupancies, such as theaters, banquet halls, bars, art galleries, churches, arenas, libraries, courtrooms, funeral parlors and other high-occupancy buildings. The city's code requires all such buildings to be sprinkled, regardless of size. The state building code generally starts requiring sprinkling at 5,500 square feet.

• Office, professional and service-type buildings, such as banks, vehicle showrooms, clinics, a doctor's or dentist's office and others. Also in this category are factory and storage uses. The city's code requires sprinkling for buildings that are 2,000 square feet or more. The state building code generally starts requiring sprinkler systems at 8,500 or 9,000 square feet for these kinds of buildings.

• Educational-type buildings serving students through the 12th grade, such as elementary, middle and high schools. The city's code starts requiring sprinkling at 2,000 square feet while the state code generally starts at 9,500 square feet.

At the last meeting, City Planner Mike Weber said Chapter 1306 has several benefits: added safety for the occupants and emergency responders; and the fact that sprinklers eliminate the need for passive fire protection measures such as firewalls and rated doors, which can offset the costs of installing sprinklers.

The city's code, however, also has drawbacks, Weber said. Some developers object to the cost, with sprinklers costing between $1.25 to $3 per square foot for new construction, according to the National Fire Prevention Association.

Also, when buildings are constructed outside the city limits, there may be no water supply available, which would make the project more costly, Weber said.

It also impacts smaller footprint projects rather than larger projects because the larger projects would likely have to be sprinkled anyway under the state building code, according to Weber.

Requiring sprinkler systems in cold-storage buildings also poses problems. Such buildings are unheated and require dry sprinkler systems, which cost more, are harder to maintain and, according to some studies, pretty unreliable.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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