WCRC meeting – November 2015

We didn’t have the biggest crowd on a Thanksgiving week, but Delegate Christopher Adams made his points during the final scheduled WCRC meeting of 2015.

Adams was down the agenda this time, as we chose to do our usual opening routine with the exception of me giving the treasurer’s report for the absent Deb Okerblom. We slotted the Central Committee report first, which meant Mark McIver could detail the “huge success” of the Lincoln Day Dinner.

McIver chalked up the success to a couple factors: good profit from the silent auction and the use of several database lists – and 150 hand-written personal invitations – to target our advertising.

Briefly going over the state convention, McIver detailed how we heard from the three leading Republican U.S. Senate candidates. Ann Suthowski chimed in that Muir Boda was mentioned twice during the convention for his success and Mark Edney did a good job explaining the succession by-laws amendment. The Salisbury University College Republicans were also mentioned as part of the state CR report for co-hosting the Lincoln Day Dinner.

McIver also announced he would host a joint club and Central Committee Christmas Party next month.

Finally, we heard from Delegate Adams. He was pleased to see the change in government in Salisbury, which he said has more sway than he does locally.

Adams noted that with $20 trillion in debt, it was likely the GOP would win this year’s election. He suggested they make cuts to the “fourth branch,” as cost-saving measures.

In Maryland, Adams continued, the Augustine Commission determined that federal spending accounted for 25% of the state’s GDP, so government cuts would affect Maryland disproportionately. The state needed to develop an “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he added.

Most of Chris’s message dealt with legislation he was introducing to allow counties to opt out of sprinkler system requirements once again. It’s something they’ve been asking for, Adams added, but they were up against a powerful firefighter lobby. Adams noted he had a meeting slated with the state!s deputy fire marshal.

Yet the $5 to $7 per square foot cost for a small, affordable home was one that couldn’t be added to the value. Mandates like this are putting new homes out of reach for young families,

He explained that the 2012 International Residential Code had this mandate, but prior to last year counties were allowed to opt out. Taking back local control “has to be a grassroots effort,” said Adams, and it requires action on a local level.

Adams was asked if many new home builders voluntarily put in sprinklers, but few did. He added that some states prohibit the mandate, including several neighboring states.

Mark McIver noted that the state was “taking away the American Dream…it’s bankrupting the younger generation.”

Adams was also asked about sprinker systems affect insurance rates. He believe they made little difference in the rates, because alleviating the fire risk was balanced against the leaking and water damage potential.

Finally, Adams was asked about last year’s bill, introduced by Delegate Jeff Ghrist, to address this. He noted it was late-filed, so it never got a hearing. His bill is pre-filed.

Christopher concluded by announcing he has a unique fundraiser at the OC Hilton December 12 and 13. You would get 2 nights’ stay and lunch with special guest Bob Ehrlich for one price.

Since we had a number of other state legislators in attendance, we got brief updates.

Carl Anderton spoke with Delaware officials, trying to get their perspective on agricultural issues. He also has a fundraiser coming up at the Delmar VFW on December 3.

Johnny Mautz believed “this year will be different than last year” in the General Assembly, with “a lot of activity.” Federal campaigns will drive some of that activity, so it would be up to Eastern Shore Republicans to kill bad bills as they could.

Addie Eckardt thought it would get “testy,” with pressure to spend our new-found surplus on items that were cut from last year’s budget. The idea was not to let ourselves get splintered, she concluded.

All in all, it was a nice little pre-session update – and timely, since we won’t meet again until after the session starts in January. To be exact, the WCRC will reconvene on January 25, 2016.

A further obstacle

Perusing social media last night, I saw that Delegate Christopher Adams linked to an article by Bob Zimberoff in the Easton Star-Democrat. Since I have a website, I’m revising and extending my remarks in my comments therein.

Zimberoff’s article talked about the rush to get building permits in Caroline County. It wasn’t thanks to a business boom or new economic opportunity – terms for which neither apply in the Eastern Shore’s sole landlocked county – but a deadline builders were rushing to meet.

(Developer Blaine) Williamson wasn’t the only one to hurry to get a permit. In all of 2014, the Caroline County Department of Planning and Codes issued 40 total permits for construction of new residential units. In 2013, 34 permits were issued.

Already in 2015, 46 permits have been issued in Caroline as of June 30. Of those 46 permits, 30 were issued in June. According to Sara Visintainer, chief of staff for the Caroline County Commissioners Office, another 30 applicants started the permitting process in June but failed to receive permits because of financial burden or other considerations.

Every few years, the state of Maryland adopts the most current editions of several building codes, including the International Residential Code. While the code has mandated that new homes have fire sprinkler systems, previously counties were able to opt out of the requirement. (I thought I had written about one such effort before, and it turns out I was right.) Apparently that exemption is no longer allowed, and it’s sending a chill throughout the housing industry. I return to the Star-Democrat:

At Williamson Acres, modest starter homes list for $150,000 to $160,000.

“That’s the market value. That’s all I can sell them for,” Williamson said. “It costs so much to build them now, I’m not making much money. When you add the sprinklers on, I would actually be losing money.”


With five vacant lots and three permits to build, Williamson said he intends to leave two lots undeveloped until regulations change or the housing market improves. Even with the BAT septic mandate, Williamson could profit $5,000 to $10,000 from selling new homes, but the sprinkler mandate effectively eliminated a chance at financial gain.

“I’m not going to build a house knowingly losing money on it,” he said. “The sprinklers are the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

So here is the situation. You will have a rush of construction over the next few months as those houses which got their permits prior to June 30 get built out, but then in a few months the market will slide as the dearth of new permits takes hold. In other words, this artificial boom will be short-lived.

My previous piece on the controversy here in Wicomico County back in 2011 noted the dubious benefits against the costs of the home sprinkler systems, but there is also the issue of how the cost may discourage rural development because it’s more expensive to use a well as a source as opposed to a municipal water system. To Radical Green, though, that’s a feature and not a bug, and you can bet your bottom dollar those who write the codes are squarely in the Radical Green camp – after all, those who believe we can build our way to absolute safety regardless of cost would also be the most fervent believers in the nanny state. We obviously want some element of safety and energy efficiency in our construction, but there comes a point when cost outweighs benefit and in a single-family residential setting sprinkler systems can be a deal-breaker.

Delegate Adams and his counterparts will be well-served in attempting to restore the exemption counties used to enjoy. Something tells me it wasn’t the rural legislators and regulators who took the exemption out, so you can call this a side skirmish in the War on Rural Maryland.

The sprinkler controversy

On Tuesday evening, Wicomico County Council will hold a public hearing and perhaps adopt an exemption to the fire sprinkler requirements now contained in the 2009 International Residential Code. While the state has adopted the 2009 IRC, counties are allowed to exempt themselves from portions therein and this is where the controversy lies.

The issue has pitted two sides which are normally allied against each other. TEA Party activists generally align themselves with those in the public safety industry, but part ways on this issue because of the added cost and regulations on new construction. (At this time, existing structures don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the code in question unless another type of building, such as a one-room schoolhouse, were to be converted to a single-family dwelling.)

I’ll admit my code knowledge has become a little bit rusty due to time away from the building industry, but in general the building code (now embodied in a series of International Codes; the former situation of three different code organizations has disappeared with their merger) has become more stringent over the years when it comes to life safety. (Conversely, though, they have tended to allow greater flexibility in achieving that goal.) The overarching concern of those who write the codes, though, remains in allowing those in peril to have the maximum opportunity to reach a place of safety – so they heavily stress maintaining the integrity of egress paths and use the tactic of separating larger spaces into smaller ones where a fire may be contained in order to shorten escape routes. These mostly occur in spaces where public occupancy is intended.

Yet the principles remain the same in residential dwellings, where the paramount concern is egress. In general, one doesn’t have nearly as far to travel to safety as they would in a public building; on the other hand, oftentimes they are much closer to the hazard of a fire. Occupants may have fewer exits to choose from as well, perhaps needing to resort to escaping through a window.

The idea behind sprinkers is obvious: eliminating the hazard of fire by having a system in place to neutralize it. While it’s not a foolproof strategy, dousing the fire to prevent its spread would gain occupants precious time in escaping the hazard.

The element of safety, though, comes at a price: it’s estimated that a sprinkler system would cost a new homeowner perhaps $10,000 to $20,000 in up-front costs. Granted, the cost could decrease somewhat as demand increases and additional players enter the market; still, in a market where new home prices can run as little as $100,000 that is a significant increase. Even without the requirenent, homeowners are free to add the system on their own.

But who else benefits? As I note above, the group coming out most strongly in favor of sprinklers are local firefighters, who ostensibly would have less to do if the work at a burning home is done for them by a sprinkler system. But they would still have to answer the service call, and it’s doubtful they’ll be asking for less monetary assistance from the county should they reject the idea of exempting themselves from this requirement.

Certainly insurance companies are foursquare behind this idea as well, since property damage would be limited in the instance of home-based sprinklers. Of course, the small break one would get on a premium pales in comparison, and just try getting a claim from water damage settled if the sprinkler system goes awry and douses your room full of electronic equipment.

It can even be argued that this promotes employment, since someone has to install the sprinklers and certainly those who are qualified to do so will see a spike in the demand for their services.

Even so, I think the exemption needs to be adopted. Yes, there are benefits to having a sprinkler system in one’s house, and the option is already available to the homeowner should he or she choose to adopt it and pay the extra cost.

But there are those groups (like Habitat for Humanity) who work to fill a void in the market at the low end, and adopting this requirement could price their clients out of the market. Certainly if you’re building a $400,000 house an extra $10,000 isn’t much of a hassle, but on an $80,000 budget sprinklers can be a deal-breaker. Builders already have to deal with a multitude of fees and red tape from local government, and this additional burden comes at a bad time.

And where does the nanny state stop? Perhaps the next edition of the IRC comes out and mandates a sprinkler system be installed with any major renovation to an existing dwelling. Obviously there’s an argument that requiring smoke alarms and detectors in single-family dwellings didn’t hurt anything, but for the most part those are relatively unobtrusive (except for the ear-splitting tone when you burn that steak in the broiler) and inexpensive. Retrofitting a sprinkler system is a much more dicey proposition.

There are compelling arguments to both sides, but with fire deaths in Maryland on a long-term downward trend the adoption of this ordinance seems to have a larger cost than benefit. Obviously one can’t dismiss the eight people who lost their lives in Wicomico County due to fire from 2004 to 2008 but we also don’t want to underestimate the negative impact such a move would have on the local economy, either.

It’s time to adopt the exemption. As I noted above, a homeowner or builder is free to install a system for their new homes – but I notice they rarely do. Since the cost doesn’t outweigh the benefit to them, why should our county government allow the international code agency to put its thumb on the scale?

By the way, since I often take potshots at him, let me give kudos to County Executive Rick Pollitt for placing the exemption before County Council.