Lawrence city commissioners narrowly approve ban on porch couches

The tradition of front porch couches at student apartments is on the way out in Lawrence.

But more than students may end up caring. City commissioners Tuesday narrowly passed a citywide ban of upholstered furniture on porches, decks and patios, after fire officials said the frequent practice in student neighborhoods created a fire risk.

Now, disobeying the new ban may create a risk for landlords. City officials clarified that in the case of rental properties, it will be the landlords — not tenants — who ultimately face any fine for violating the new law.

“The property owner will have the responsibility of having a good lease to ensure that the property remains in compliance with the code,” City Manager David Corliss told commissioners.

Technically fines can start at $100 per day, but city officials said they first simply would ask tenants and then property owners to remove the outlawed furniture. The issue of fines and enforcement were two of many issues that city commissioners struggled with at their weekly meeting. Commissioners approved the ban on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Mike Amyx and Jeremy Farmer opposing the ban.

Both commissioners said they thought the city already had appropriate language in their codes to prohibit indoor furniture from being placed on porches, decks and patios, if the city really thought it was a problem.

“I see this more as telling people what to do, and where does that stop?” Farmer said. “A lot of people I have talked to have said the same thing. I have gotten dozens of comments.

But the public was largely quiet Tuesday night. No one from the public spoke against the ban. Only one neighborhood member spoke in favor of it.

A majority of commissioners said they thought there was solid precedent for the ban.

“I think this just makes our intention a lot clearer and lot more enforceable,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “I’m not trying to tell people how to live or how to socialize. It is kind of like the old pop bottle rockets. I loved shooting them off as a kid, but they just cause too many fires.”

Fire department statistics showed that since 2007 there had been 10 fires — out of 463 total structure fires — that involved upholstered furniture on porches, decks or patios. But Fire Chief Mark Bradford said the quick burning nature of the furniture, and the lack of smoke alarms on porches made them particularly dangerous. Several other university cities, including Lincoln, Neb., Ames, Iowa, and Columbia, Mo., already have bans in place.

City officials haven’t set a date to begin enforcing the ban. Instead, they said they’ll spend several months doing an educational effort, especially in student neighborhoods, to try to gain voluntary compliance.

The ban won’t affect lawn chairs or other types of furniture that are specifically made for outdoor use.

In other news, commissioners:

• Unanimously approved a 10-year, 50 percent tax abatement to help Sunlite Science & Technologies move into a space at 4811 Quail Crest Place. Commissioners approved the request for the LED lighting manufacturer despite it being a smaller than normal project for tax abatements. The company plans to invest $2.3 million over 10 years. The city’s tax abatement policy recommends companies be required to invest at least $5 million over 10 years before they are eligible for an abatement. Commissioners said they may want to revise that policy to better fit today’s economy.

• Unanimously approved permits for two downtown runs: The Color Run on Sept. 14 and the Glow Run on Oct. 12. Commissioners agreed to require organizers of The Color Run to submit $20,000 deposit to ensure the downtown area is properly cleaned up following the event, which is expected to attract about 7,000 runners.