Legislation which would remove a City of Aberdeen requirement that mobile homes in the city limits be equipped with sprinklers to suppress fires is slated to come before the City Council for a vote Monday.
The ordinance was introduced before the mayor and council Oct. 7 and the subject of a public hearing Oct. 28.
Both happened before two new council members — Adam Hiob and Jason Kolligs — were elected Nov. 5. They join Tim Lindecamp and Sandra Landbeck on the council, as well as Mayor Patrick McGrady, who was re-elected to a second term.
If passed, the ordinance would apply to mobile homes only — new “stick built” houses must have sprinkler systems installed in accordance with state law, according to Lindecamp, who cosponsored the legislation.
Any new mobile homes would not need sprinkler systems if the ordinance passes. The owners of existing dwellings that have sprinklers would need to decide how they want to proceed, according to Lindecamp.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, regulates construction of mobile homes, and Aberdeen is one of the few jurisdictions in Maryland that requires sprinklers be installed in them — that is not required by Harford County or the state, Lindecamp said when the ordinance was introduced.
He recalled a 2010 case in which South Carolina’s Supreme Court overturned a City of Myrtle Beach law that motorcycle riders must wear helmets when riding in city limits, although they were not required to do so when in other parts of the state. The justices found that state law preempts the city law and issued a judgement invalidating the Myrtle Beach helmet ordinance, finding in favor of those who had sued the city.
Lindecamp expressed, during the introduction, concerns that Aberdeen could be sued by mobile home park associations over its sprinkler ordinance, “and we will lose.”
The mayor and council voted 4-1 on Oct. 7 in favor of introducing the ordinance. Landbeck, whose husband is a member of the Aberdeen Fire Department, cast the lone dissenting vote.
Some builders and owners of mobile homes have said they are having difficulty selling them because the sprinkler requirement increases the cost.
“For four years, they’ve been calling me, begging me to remove the [sprinkler] requirements because the mobile home park operators can’t find new tenants, because it costs a lot of money,” McGrady said.
Former Councilman Melvin Taylor said he did not want residents who already have financial challenges to bear the extra burden of an expensive mobile home.
Firefighters: Sprinklers save lives
Lindecamp reiterated his reasons for wanting to remove the sprinkler requirement during the Oct. 28 public hearing. He noted that “some studies show” mobile homes, built under HUD standards, are better than wooden, stick-built houses.
Two members of the volunteer Aberdeen Fire Department differed, however. John Landbeck Jr., husband of Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck, spoke as the chair of the city’s Board of Appeals and as a long-serving member of the fire department.
He said developers of projects which do not meet city standards can file an appeal and plead their case before the board, which can rule in the applicant’s favor, or not, depending on the situation.
“There is a venue that exists now for people that might be in that circumstance,” Landbeck said.
He also recalled an incident in which an Aberdeen firefighter fell through the floor of a burning mobile home and was dragged to safety by his comrades.
“Mobile home fires are probably the most scary thing we can face,” he said, noting that combustible materials in those structures are “entirely different” from those found in wooden or masonry dwellings.
“Having a sprinkler system would be not only a lifesaver for the residents, but that’s certainly a significant lifesaver for your volunteer firefighters,” Landbeck said.
Fire company president Ed Budnick said it is “a horrific event” when someone is injured or killed in a fire.
“They create broad and lasting impressions for everyone in the community, especially those that are called on to contain and control these events,” he said.
Budnick said HUD “made some strides” in fire protection when it took over regulating construction of mobile homes in the 1970s, but those improvements “don’t reach the level of having an in-place sprinkler system.”
“We will continue to ask for support in the efforts that get us closer to the zero fire injures and zero fire death rate,” he said. “We believe that functional residential sprinkler systems do just that — they absolutely do just that.”
Budnick cited data from the National Fire Protection Association, which indicates that sprinklers are effective in controlling 96 percent of residential fires when activated, and that “the lowest fire death rates are recorded in homes with hard wired smoke detectors and residential sprinkler systems,” he said.
The same NFPA data shows that “just over 50 percent” of people who live in manufactured, or mobile, homes are “noncompliant with smoke detector laws and regulations,” he said.
“That scares the bejesus out of us,” Budnick said.
Developer: Sprinklers make mobile homes unaffordable
Ryan Hotchkiss, president of Horizon Land Co. in Crofton, emphasized that manufactured homes are the only housing in the U.S. regulated by the federal government, under the “very stringent” HUD code.
“Fire suppression is one of the most important things under the HUD code,” said Hotchkiss, whose company owns and operates 65 manufactured home communities in 10 states, including in Maryland.
Horizon Land owns three communities in Harford County, including Magnolia Estates in Edgewood and Spring Valley and Rancho Estates in Aberdeen.
Federal code requires a number of design features to ensure fire safety in manufactured homes, such as new structures must be hard wired with smoke detectors, all bedrooms must have egress windows so occupants can get out, and there must be two exterior doors, Hotchkiss said.
The dwellings are one story high, so “people can get in and out in no time,” said Hotchkiss, who emphasized that he has “a ton of respect” for firefighters.
He said manufactured homes are not only federally regulated housing, but they are affordable housing. It costs $6,000 to $12,000 to install a sprinkler system in a dwelling, “making affordable housing otherwise unaffordable.” There are also costs to make upgrades on the property and maintain the sprinkler water lines.
Horizon Land officials want their dwellings to be occupied by homeowners, rather than renters. A house built in Magnolia Estates can sell for $10,000 to $12,000 less than one in Aberdeen, though, Hotchkiss said.
He expressed concern that his company’s communities in Aberdeen could face decline if the struggle to sell houses there continues.
“We cannot continue to upgrade the standards of the home, because they become unaffordable,” Hotchkiss said.
He stressed that manufactured homes are “extremely safe to begin with, in every way shape or form, especially in the case of fire.”
State officials weigh in
Emily Witty, a spokesperson for the Office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal, noted that the federal regulation for construction and safety in manufactured homes “does not have an explicit requirement” for fire sprinklers.
She also cited an Aug. 11, 2017, memo from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development regarding federal, state and local standards for sprinklers in manufactured homes. Housing officials stated that “the issue of fire sprinkler systems is among the items which the HUD Code does not currently address.”
“HUD has long held that state and local fire sprinkler requirements are not preempted by the general fire safety standards," the memo continued. "This allows states and local governments to require sprinkler systems that a manufactured home must have in order to be installed in the jurisdiction.”
Based on the memorandum, “it appears that the State of Maryland does not have a requirement for installation of such protection in HUD certified housing. Rather, the State would defer this requirement to a local jurisdiction," Witty stated in a Nov. 1 email.
That, in essence, means municipalities such as Aberdeen can set their own standard regarding sprinklers in mobile homes, although sprinklers can be a crucial tool in suppressing fires and saving lives, Witty noted.
“Residential sprinklers are life-saving systems that allow a family to escape from an unwanted fire in their home,” State Fire Marshal Brian S. Geraci said in a statement. “These systems also protect our firefighters from being injured or killed as the fire, in most cases, is extinguished by a single sprinkler head.”