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Baltimore City Council weighs removing fire code requirement on road widths

A Baltimore City Council committee delayed a vote until Wednesday on whether to stop adhering to part of the International Fire Code that requires certain road widths and building access requirements.
A Baltimore City Council committee delayed a vote until Wednesday on whether to stop adhering to part of the International Fire Code that requires certain road widths and building access requirements. (Colin Campbell/The Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council is considering whether to stop adhering to a section of the International Fire Code that requires certain road widths and building access, a major point of contention in the ongoing fight over bicycle lanes.

The fire code issue became a hot-button topic last year when some Potomac Street residents in Canton argued that a bike lane on their street, which removed parking spots, posed a safety risk because it narrowed the road too much. The dispute prompted the city Transportation Department to consider removing the lane until the advocacy group Bikemore filed a lawsuit to stop it.

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After spirited testimony Tuesday from fire officials, bicycling advocates and developers on the issue, the council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee postponed its vote until Wednesday, to give the city’s law, finance and fire departments time to determine whether such a move would open the city to increased liability or lower the city’s bond rating.

Baltimore bicyclists may have to wait another year for protected bike lanes on Monument, Centre and Madison streets.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a bicycling and transit advocate, was the lead sponsor of the bill, which would strip Appendix D from the sections of the International Fire Code that the city chooses to follow and instead amend city ordinance to follow more flexible guidelines.

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He and other proponents of the bill pointed out that the fire code is optional unless adopted by a local government, and that most of Baltimore’s roads do not comply with its stated 20- and 26-foot width requirements for optimal fire access.

The city does not use seven other appendices of the code, Dorsey noted, including those governing fire hydrant locations and distribution, and fire protection systems.

“I happen to have this part of my body called an appendix,” Dorsey said. “I understand that if something happens and I have to have it removed, I don’t die.”

Fire Chief Niles R. Ford, who testified in opposition to the bill, responded in kind.

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“I would argue that if I was going to remove Councilman Dorsey’s appendix, I would plan it, and I don’t feel like this is a plan,” Ford said.

Ford acknowledged that many Baltimore streets don’t comply with the width requirements, but argued that the city should be moving toward making its streets more accessible for the Fire Department, not less.

“Our patch says ‘Pride Protecting People,’ ” Ford said. “We take this very seriously, and we think this will be an inhibiting factor to what we’re trying to do to protect the public.”

Changing the fire code would inhibit fire responses, said Thomas Nosek, a 29-year Fire Department veteran and second vice president of the officers’ union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 964.

“The BCFD is the best agency in Baltimore City, bar none,” he said. “Messing with the fire code is handcuffing us. The biggest thing we do is access and egress. … By changing the fire code, we’re playing with that.”

After years of lagging behind other U.S. cities in bike infrastructure, Baltimore started to catch up: building protected bike lanes on Roland Avenue, Maryland Avenue and Potomac Street. Then came the pushback.

Jed Weeks, policy director of Bikemore, argued that more bike- and pedestrian-friendly road design would benefit the Fire Department by reducing the number of car accidents and medical emergencies such as heart attacks by promoting better public health.

“Streets that remove travel lanes and reduce crossing distances are proven to both save lives and generate opportunities for economic development,” he said.

Some bike lane projects remain stalled amid the fire code deliberations, as do streetscape improvements by the Johns Hopkins University and Beatty Development Group at the mixed-use development at St. Paul and East 33rd streets in Charles Village.

Josh Greenfeld, of the Maryland Building Industry Association, and Caroline Hecker, of the Baltimore Development Workgroup, argued that the Fire Department only began strictly enforcing the road clearances on new projects after the Potomac Street bicycle lane fight.

“Prior to Potomac Street, the rules functioned appropriately,” Greenfeld said. “Post-Potomac Street, the Fire Department began to insert itself into the Site Planning Review Committee and veto projects that weren’t problems before.”

Councilman Eric Costello, the committee chairman, rescheduled the vote for a work group meeting at 4:50 p.m. Wednesday. The work group will be public and additional agency testimony will be allowed, although the committee will not accept any further public testimony, he said.

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