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City Council repeals part of fire code to accommodate bike lanes, development

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is weighing whether to sign legislation that would repeal parts of the city fire code to allow new bike lanes and encourage development projects, her spokesman said Tuesday.

The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve the bill, sending it to Pugh’s desk.

“Her only stance is that citizens be able to reside safely in their communities,” said James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor.

For months, the city’s Fire Department has been at odds with cycling advocates and developers over whether city streets are wide enough to accommodate their projects and large pieces of fire equipment.

On Monday, council members backed a bill sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that would repeal a section of the fire code, which requires 20- and 26-foot street clearances for fire access, and replace it with more flexible guidelines adopted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide.

“Passing my Council bill today to amend the fire code is not just about ceasing to force suburban standards on our urban environment, but mandating that our streets be designed in accordance with best practices,” Dorsey wrote on Twitter.

The fire code issue arose last summer 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 cyclist organization Bikemore filed a lawsuit to stop it.

City Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the judiciary and legislative investigations committee, had warned the Fire Department in June to make “demonstrable progress” on roughly 20 to 25 stalled developments and a handful of bike lanes — or, he said, the council would strip a section from the fire code that the Fire Department has been citing to justify delays.

Council members cited four developments in particular that have stalled: the Charles Village Streetscape; Townes at Eager Park; the Woodberry Subdivision; and the former PEMCO site on Eastern Avenue.

Proponents of the bill argued that most streets in the city do not comply with that part of the code. The Fire Department appears to be inconsistently objecting to bike lanes but not to parking spaces, critics say.

“This has been a year-long fight to make sure our city advances in progressive transportation planning,” said Liz Cornish, the director of Bikemore. “We think council made the right move and we look forward to the mayor signing this bill.”

Fire officials testified against the bill, saying repeal of the code would “have a detrimental effect on overall public safety.”

The agency made a video submitted to the City Council in an attempt to show large fire trucks can’t fit down streets narrowed by bike lanes.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack" Young said at the time that the video makes the opposite point of what the agency intended.

“The video shows clearly the Fire Department can get to the fires on these streets,” Young said.

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