Commissioners agreed to approve a new fire code but decided to wait before requiring that sprinklers be installed in many downtown basements.
Fire-suppressing sprinklers won't have to be installed in basements along Massachusetts Street right away, but their time will come.
On a 4-0 vote Tuesday night, Lawrence city commissioners decided to seek more information before requiring that many downtown basements be equipped with automatic fire sprinklers within five years, as recommended by the city's Fire Code Board of Appeals.
"I don't want to give any indication that we don't want to do this," Commissioner Erv Hodges said. "The question I have is how are we going to do it and when?"
Commissioners agreed to the delay after hearing concerns from owners of businesses and properties downtown. They fear getting scorched with bills of at least $16,500 to get the jobs done.
"That's more than their income, a lot of the time," said Myles Schachter, who spoke on behalf of Downtown Lawrence Inc.
Schachter estimated that as many as 200 businesses -- about 80 percent of them locally owned -- could be required to install basement sprinklers to comply with the fire code as proposed. And that means they would need some financial help, given their often "tight budgets" and "very small bottom lines."
Schachter suggested having the city waive "tap" fees for new water connections, install new water lines for free and possibly even create a special financing method to allow the costs of sprinklers to be paid off over a period of years.
Maj. Rich Barr, Lawrence fire marshal, also wouldn't mind seeing the sprinklers in place right away. Last year's fire at Sunflower & Bike Shop, 844 Mass., could have been extinguished -- or at least controlled -- had sprinklers been in place, he said.
As it was, the blaze started in the basement and caused more than $1 million in damage.
Without sprinklers being required, a similar blaze two years from now could be even worse and wipe out half a block of downtown, said Jim McSwain, chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical.
"We don't want this to be a surprise," McSwain said.
City Manager Mike Wildgen said officials would gather more information before bringing the issue back to the commission for a decision.
In the meantime, commissioners agreed to OK the remainder of the new fire code, as proposed.
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