There's no need to talk now about requiring fire sprinkler systems in new residences, but if such discussions are renewed in the future, property tax breaks should be part of the equation.
Lawrence city officials are getting ahead of themselves with discussions about requiring fire-extinguishing sprinklers in new local residences.
But if the primary reasons businesses and residences are to be required to install sprinklers is to reduce the city's need to expand fire protection, the city should at least be willing to help defray the cost of the new systems.
A proposal already is being formulated to require sprinklers in many basements in the downtown area within five years. Fire officials cite last year's fire at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop, 844 Mass., as an example of a fire that started in the basement and could have been controlled by sprinklers before it spread to the rest of the building.
The cost of installing sprinklers pales in comparison to the more than $1 million worth of damage the blaze caused at Sunflower and nearby businesses, but it is no small matter for owners of downtown buildings. Downtown Lawrence officials estimated earlier this year that as many as 200 businesses might have to pay up to $16,500 apiece to get sprinklers installed.
Now, city officials are considering requiring the installation of fire-extinguishing sprinklers in all new homes built in Lawrence. A local builder estimates adding sprinklers would add $3,000 to $5,000 to the purchase price of a home. The builder also pointed out that it would be unfair for the owner of a new home to pay higher property taxes, based on the home's purchase price, because those property taxes are being used, in part, to support fire protection for homes without sprinklers. Fire stations would have to remain active in those older parts of town, while new firefighting facilities wouldn't be required in neighborhoods dominated by houses with fire sprinkler systems.
Sprinkler systems would undoubtedly lower insurance bills for businesses and residences. But if city officials aren't satisfied with the insurance incentive and want to pass an ordinance to require sprinklers, they should be willing to kick in by giving owners of the modified buildings and homes a property tax break. It would only be fair considering how much it would save the city in fire protection costs.
The bottom line is that city officials should move slowly on expanding the sprinkler requirement for businesses and back off on discussions of sprinkler systems in residences. Most of the 130 American communities that have a residential sprinkler requirement are in California, probably in areas where there is a particular danger for raging forest and brush fires.
The idea of requiring fire sprinkler systems in all residences may sound good in the classroom, but there are a multitude of practical considerations that need to be addressed. Lawrence shouldn't be in too big a hurry to adopt such a policy.