Bloomington Makes Sprinklers Optional

Originally published by: WJBCJanuary 24, 2012

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BLOOMINGTON – Beginning next month, anyone buying a newly built home in Bloomington will be forced to decide whether to put in a residential sprinkler system – but they’ll have the option of turning it down.

Bloomington aldermen Monday rejected mandatory sprinklers in new homes with an 8-1 vote, siding with homebuilders who claimed the devices are a costly infringement of personal property rights and against their own fire chief’s pleas for public safety.

Instead of mandatory sprinklers beginning in 2013, homebuilders will only have to prove they made a good-faith effort to offer their buyers a sprinkler system. Buyers can say no, and homebuilders who are constructing homes speculatively without a buyer lined up – known as “spec” homes – can also decline to put in the sprinkler systems.

A crowd of developers and real-estate agents at Monday’s meeting cheered the passage of the so-called “mandatory offer” plan. One of them was Ed Neaves, a Realtor and president of the Bloomington-Normal Area Home Builders Association, who told aldermen his group wasn’t discounting the fire department’s life-safety argument in support of the sprinkler mandate.

The real issue, Neaves said, is personal property rights.

“If they want the choice, they can have it,” he said.

Ward 4 Alderman Judy Stearns agreed. She said the “nanny state is alive and well” and that she feared a slippery slope that would eventually require sprinklers in existing homes, or additions to existing homes. She also said the economic impact on the local homebuilding industry could be devastating. (The estimated added cost of a sprinkler system is about $2 per square foot.)

Stearns discounted a list of 70-plus cities in Illinois with sprinkler ordinances, because almost all of them are in the Chicagoland area.

“I don’t believe this is a concept we’re ready for downstate,” Stearns said.

Ward 6 Karen Schmidt was the lone vote against rejecting the mandatory sprinklers. After the meeting, she said she voted “no” because of confusion over a separate building-code provision related to fire safety and flooring, and because she wants to support the fire department’s position on the issue.

Confusion over motions

The council didn’t do much Monday to counter public perception that it’s a sometimes dysfunctional body. The council struggled for a half-hour to untangle two motions, leaving some in the audience openly wondering if aldermen knew what they were voting for.

The apparent source of the confusion was a measure that was ultimately defeated, requiring structurally secure floor systems in new homes if aldermen voted down the mandatory sprinkler requirement.

“Unfortunately, many firefighters are injured and sometimes killed when they’re falling through the floors as they go in to perform rescues and try to save people,” Hales said Tuesday.

But that measure was a relatively new addition to the months-long sprinklers debate, catching some off-guard. It left some aldermen shaking their heads.

Ward 2 Alderman David Sage said he was uncomfortable with how the lead-up to the vote progressed.

“I do appreciate that in the end we were able to craft a motion, but my oh my, it took awhile to get there,” Sage said.

Bloomington’s vote also puts Normal’s sprinklers status in limbo. The Normal Town Council had voted in November to trigger its sprinklers mandate whenever Bloomington’s began, but now that will never happen.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said the town never considered the “mandatory offer” but will likely do so now. He said he plans to confer with his council and look into the objections raised in Bloomington.

Koos said his council understands the life-safety arguments for the sprinklers but was never “adamant” about a mandate.

“We want to keep a level playing field in the community,” Koos said.

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