A majority of the mayors of Carroll County towns support an initiative by the county's firefighters that would require residential sprinklers in all new one- and two-family houses.
Representatives of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association asked the county commissioners last week to pass such an ordinance, saying it would save lives and property, and delay the county's need to go to a paid fire force.
Richard A. Green Sr., the association's second vice president, suggested that the county use the same ordinance that was adopted by Mount Airy in 2003.
Each of the county's seven other incorporated towns would decide for itself.
Among them, Union Bridge has the most new development planned - which could triple its population of about 1,000.
"Now is the time," said Union Bridge Mayor Bret D. Grossnickle. "I think it's a great idea. I support it. With the new construction, for what it costs - $300,000, $400,000 - what's $2,000 or $3,000? It's silly not to include it, just for the potential life-savings. Any time you can save a life, it's worth it.
"If I could figure out a way to put it in my house, I would," Grossnickle said of his 100-year-old home, where his children, ages 9 and 11, live. "I could kick myself for not doing it when I remodeled. If it saves my kid's life, or even saves the house - I just can't imagine what it would be like - the pictures, things you can't replace. I'd hate to lose the pictures of my kids growing up."
County Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., Westminster Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff and Taneytown Mayor W. Robert Flickinger also expressed support.
For some towns, the matter may be academic - either because they follow the county's lead or because they have little or no room left for new houses.
"I am going to express the sentiments of the county commissioners and Mayor Dayhoff to the council," said Hampstead Mayor Haven N. Shoemaker Jr., but, "as a practical matter, we don't have a lot of building left in Hampstead."
Looking to county
Sykesville town manager Matthew Candland and New Windsor Mayor Sam Pierce expressed a similar sentiment about a lack of significant development. Both also said their towns usually follow the county's lead.
In Maryland, sprinklers are not required in one- and two-family homes, said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor. They are required in apartments, townhouse developments and many commercial and industrial buildings.
Prince George's and Montgomery counties are the only other jurisdictions that have a residential sprinkler requirement, Taylor said.
The ordinance sought by the firefighters would apply to one- and two-family houses that have not received building permits. It would not apply to renovations, mobile homes or uninhabited structures such as greenhouses and garages. Passage of such an ordinance would require a public hearing, county officials said.
Doubts in Manchester
In Manchester, a motion to require sprinklers in new homes last year was not seconded. Mayor Christopher B. D'Amario said there was concern about government intrusion.
D'Amario said later: "Don't get me wrong: I think it's a good idea to have sprinklers in a house. It's not that I'm opposed to it. I just questioned - and so has our council - whether or not it's the government's job to mandate it.
"It should be a personal decision," he said. "I would love to see it as an option to the homebuyer."
Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said that, although he always wore a seat belt, he was nonetheless "miffed" when it became mandatory.
"'One more government regulation.' And I understand that," Minnich said Tuesday. But he added that the figures regarding the number of lives saved were "compelling."
At the same meeting, Green recited statistics from the National Fire Protection Association that 85 percent of fire deaths and 71 percent of injuries are in one- and two-family residences, as well as 83 percent of property damage - and 95 percent of firefighter deaths. Sprinklers increased the likelihood of survival to more than 97 percent.
Meanwhile, the cost has dropped to about $1 per square foot, Green and others said.
Tom Ballentine, the Home Builders Association of Maryland's director of government affairs since 1988, said the home-sprinkler issue has been debated for years without being adopted in any state or national building codes.
"There's a fairly strong lobby that advocates for installation of residential sprinklers in every single-family house," he said. "They decided to change their approach. They lost the battle at the code level, and they decided to go jurisdiction by jurisdiction and try to get local governments to add this to their codes.
"It's kind of a prickly thing for some people to stand up and oppose something like this," Ballentine said. He questioned the figures - especially regarding the costs that the advocates gave as $1 per square foot or less.
"I've heard that figure bandied about," Ballentine said. "It does not take into account whether a system is on a well," requiring a pump or pressurized holding tank. "It would be much higher than that.
"By rule of thumb, you triple it," Ballentine said of the cost to the buyer, "because it goes into the cost of the mortgage [and] taxes."
In Carroll, he said, the median price of a single-family house rose by 25 percent - to $467,990 - above the previous year, according to December figures provided by a market research company.
Furthermore, Ballentine said, "the fire statistics just don't hold: They don't keep the age of the structure. Almost all the [single-family] home fires are in older structures."
Taylor disagreed, giving fire fatality figures for 2004.
Figures for 2004 showed the state had 87 fire deaths - 62 in single-family homes, he said. Only seven were due to electrical malfunction.
Taylor said he hopes that the ordinance in Mount Airy might open the door for a countywide ordinance.
"In some jurisdictions, the groundwork has already been laid," Taylor said. "We provide the chorus."