When considering code regulations, cities are often required to walk a fine line. On one hand, codes are an essential part of protecting the public. On the other hand, an overzealous approach to codes can harm the viability of existing businesses and discourage future development.
The city of Starkville is now in the process of walking that line as it updates its code requirements.
During Tuesday’s regular meeting the Starkville Board of Aldermen held the first of two public meetings to get feedback on a planned update of its codes.
Most prominent in Tuesday’s discussions was a proposed code amendment that would require a business where alcohol is served that has an occupancy of more than 300 people to be equipped with a sprinkler system.
The public safety argument for adopting this amendment should be obvious. There is a long and tragic history of nightclub fires. In fact, the deadliest U.S. nightclub fire occurred in Natchez in 1940, when boarded up windows, flammable decorations and overcrowding played a factor in the loss of 200 lives.
In that respect, requiring enhanced safety measures do not appear to be inappropriate.
But on the other side of the coin, there is a cost associated with adding a sprinkler system, one that could potentially threaten a business’ ability to remain open.
According to Starkville Fire Marshall Mark McCurdy the new sprinkler requirement would affect just one existing business — Level III bar.
“If this were to be adopted, it would require that one business (Level III) to either sprinkle his building or go out of business basically,” McCurdy said.
The National Fire Protection Association estimates the cost of retrofitting a commercial building with a sprinkler system is $1.35 per square foot. That means it would cost $6,750 to equip a 5,000 square foot building with sprinklers.
Only the business owner can determine whether the requirement is cost-prohibitive.
Yet the fact that the new requirement affects only one business appears to have given city officials pause. They certainly don’t want the perception that they are singling out a single business, nor do they want to discourage future growth.
If the city truly believes a sprinkler requirement is needed to protect the public, it should stand firm.
This speed bump shouldn’t halt an otherwise prudent code change. Either “grandfathering in” Level III’s current lack of sprinklers or allowing them to phase in the changes seem reasonable alternatives to scrapping the code change altogether.
The most important factor is determining whether or not the amendment is justified.
What do the fire experts recommend?
City officials should follow those recommendations while finding a reasonable solution for this single business.