Updated: Fire sprinkler proposal for new homes withdrawn

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SPRINGFIELD - Intense political pressure, including a letter from Senate President John Cullerton, Friday prompted the state fire marshal to withdraw a plan to require fire sprinkler systems in some buildings, including all new single-family homes built in the state.

The sprinkler plan, which is part of the 2012 edition of the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code and was up for adoption in Illinois, also would have required retrofitting some existing buildings with sprinklers, including high-rises and areas used for gatherings of 100 or more, including churches, dance halls, nightclubs and any place with festival seating.

The proposal, which was to go before the Legislature's Joint Commission on Administrative Rules either this month or in September, was opposed by the city of Chicago, the Illinois Municipal League, the Illinois Homebuilders Association, the Illinois Realtors Association and a number of other groups.

Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, said he believed "it was going down anyway" at JCAR, of which he is a member.

"It's just not the right thing to do. I understand the approach that many are taking with regard to fire safety, but any time that we're discussing a new rule or regulation and promoting it on a safety basis, there's always another side," said Righter. "To establish a policy that is going to make it at least somewhat if not significantly more expensive to build a new home in the state that is last in new housing starts just doesn't make sense. And form a philosophical point of view it's an overreach.

"New homeowners have the ability to decide if they want to put a sprinkler system in or not. And they ought to be able to make that decision themselves."

The issue was to have been considered next week at a meeting of the Champaign County Board's environment and land use committee, where a sample resolution opposing the adoption of the rule was on the agenda.

State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis said he pulled the proposal Friday because it needed "additional refinement."

"We have received an unprecedented amount of public input and suggestions through emails, letters and public meetings," said Matkaitis. "In the course of this process, it's become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinement.

"Therefore today I am officially withdrawing the proposed rule before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to take into account substantial public comment and carefully re-examine this issue."

A public hearing on the proposal, scheduled for next Tuesday at the fire marshal's office in Springfield, also was canceled.

Cullerton sent a letter to Matkaitis, dated July 31, that urged him to withdraw the proposal. Cullerton said it was "unnecessary, unreasonable and it represents an inappropriate extension of the rulemaking authority" granted to the fire marshal.

He said the proposal "would further burden an already fragile homebuilding industry" and said it "would have disastrous financial implications for homeowners, condo associations, religious organizations and businesses throughout the state of Illinois, who will ultimately pay the price for these costly and unnecessary installations."

In suggesting that Matkaitis pull the proposal, Cullerton urged him to "explore other options for how you might best fulfill your commitment to protecting the life and property of the citizens of Illinois from fire and other dangers while working within the framework provided by the Fire Investigation Act."

Two area state senators commended Matkaitis' decision. Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said it was "a victory for common sense," and Champaign Democrat Sen. Mike Frerichs, a former volunteer firefighter, commended him "for listening to many citizens' concerns and working to balance" public safety and economic concerns.

Not everyone, however, was opposed to the proposed rule.

The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board had noted that 91 Illinois communities, including Normal, already have fire sprinkler ordinances for single-family homes, and that California and Maryland have statewide requirements similar to those that had been suggested.

Tom Lia, the executive director of the board, also disputed estimates that sprinklers would add more than $10,000 to the cost of a 3,100 square foot house, saying that contractors "recently completed projected in Illinois and the cost averages $2.38 per sprinklered square foot."

That translates to about $7,400 for a 3,100-square-foot house that was fully sprinklered.

The fire marshal, in a graphics presentation made earlier this week, said that insurers offer 15 percent discounts for sprinklered homes.

And although the municipal league opposed the sprinkler requirement, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said she thought the single-family home requirement "was an idea whose time has come."

"A fire is a terrible thing so I'm in favor of anything that's going to promote safety as long as it's reasonable," she said.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said the city council had not discussed the issue but was aware of it.

"I'm just happy that in my day job we're able to do these projects for safety," said Gerard, who is a facilities manager at the University of Illinois. "But I'm aware that it could be problematic to require this for new construction. Maybe this is something that could be incentivized instead of just mandated."

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