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Exemption from permit requirements for agricultural buildings draws fire from Harford councilman

Will Harford County let smaller ag buildings be built without a permit?

A Harford County Council member is criticizing a proposed county building code amendment that would exempt agricultural buildings of 1,500 square feet or smaller that are used for public assembly from getting county permits.

The amendment, introduced to the council Tuesday night by Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, would apply to buildings on agricultural property with occupancy of up to 100 people or that do not have commercial kitchens.

"It's unreal," Councilman Joe Woods said late Thursday afternoon. "Nobody will explain why they want it. The only response we got [from the county attorney] is that 'Barry [Glassman] wants it.'"

"I asked the administration who they want this for, but they won't tell me," he added.

The change would become part of an updated building code the council is the process of adopting through legislation. A public hearing was held on the legislation by the council Tuesday.

Council President Dick Slutzky postponed a vote on the amendment, but noted it needs to be acted on at the next council meeting scheduled for April 21.

The applicable section of the code from which the affected buildings would be exempt states: "Any owner or authorized agent who intends to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish, or change the occupancy of a building or structure, or to erect, install, enlarge, alter, repair, remove, convert or replace any electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing system, the installation of which is regulated by this code, or to cause any such work to be done, shall first make application to the building official and obtain the required permit."

County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the exemption amendment is not in response to any specific request, but would let farmers "add to their income so it was just simply a matter of that, to try to be more accommodating to folks who own these types of properties."

Anyone with a building that meets the criteria, new or existing, would not need to apply for permits from the county, she said.

"This was to allow the farming community an additional potential business use on properties they either have or if someone were to build a new property that met that criteria," she said.

"We've certainly been looking to promote economic development when we can," Mumby added.

Woods said he believes the amendment creates a potential major fire hazard and wanted to see proof that the Office of the State Fire Marshal is on board with it.

When Woods asked about it Tuesday night, Paul Lawder, the county's director of inspections, license and permits, said cautiously that the fire marshal did not have objections to "the way this is worded."

Woods, a longtime firefighter and former fire chief of the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company, said he has responded to several barn fires this year that resulted in "numerous dead animals," and he would never support a law that let 100 people in a building that he said could burn within minutes.

"That blows my mind," he said of the amendment.

Woods said he spent several hours Thursday trying to make sense of the proposed change, including discussing it with representatives of the Office of the State Fire Marshal, who he said told him there had been no prior discussions with the county.

"We're talking about cramming up to 100 people into 1,500 square feet," Woods said. "What the Fire Marshal's Office told me was, if there are more than 50 people in an area that size, they will shut the place down [under the fire occupancy code], regardless of what it is."

Most agricultural structures in the county already are exempt from the same permit requirements, including barns, equipment buildings, livestock pens, poultry houses, silos, agricultural retail buildings up to 3,000 square feet and "areas used for parties and receptions within agricultural buildings and areas used for parties and receptions within agricultural buildings."

The exemptions got into the county code to give farmers a financial break, particularly as some have tried to make other commercial uses of their property to generate additional income to supplement their core farming business.

The 2012 International Building Code, upon which the Harford building code is based, provides permit exemptions for structures such as fences, awnings, retaining walls, some water tanks, oil derricks and temporary stages and motion picture sets and scenery, but does not have any exemptions for agricultural buildings. Local governments can modify the model code to suit their particular needs, however.

Solar deal approved

The council did approve Tuesday a 20-year agreement with Constellation Generation to buy electricity from the large-scale solar farm the company plans to develop in Perryman.

The agreement calls for the county to purchase power from the solar facility at a price of $0.07 a kilowatt hour, subject to a 1.5 percent annual increase, for an initial term of 20 years. The electricity would be used by the county owned Sod Run Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is near the planned solar farm.

Based on the county auditor's estimated savings of $70,000 yearly in electricity and distribution charges and taxes, the deal could save the county upward of $1.4 million over the two decades.

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