A Rutherford County firefighter conducts a side-by-side burn inside two 8-by-8 foot rooms with furniture Aug. 8, 2013, at the Kittrell Volunteer Fire Department near Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of L. Marchesoni/RCSO)
The Rutherford County Planning Commission approved new subdivision regulations without proposed controversial sprinkler requirements after a nearly four-hour long meeting Monday night featuring public input from politicians, homebuilders and fire safety experts.
The commission voted to approve the proposed regulations with the removal of the section detailing the sprinkler system rules, as well as the withdrawal of the changes to language dictating fire hydrant distance requirements.
The update to the county’s subdivision regulations included changes to the criteria for subdivision classification and approval, and changes to the minimum design standards, County Planning Director Doug Demosi said at the meeting.
The most significant changes being made were those to the subdivision approval process and subdivision classification criteria, which would change the basis of the distinction between major and minor subdivisions from the number of lots created to the improvements made to the property, Demosi said.
However, the public hearing discussion focused on the portion of the design standards that provided the option for the installation of sprinklers in developments of three or more lots where fire hydrants were not readily available. The previous regulations required sprinkler installation in developments of four or more applicable lots.
The changes to the sprinkler requirements would likely only affect a small portion of new developments at this time, Demosi said.
The focus on sprinkler systems for fire protection instead of smoke detectors was first questioned by Joe Swanson Jr., a Rutherford County contractor. He suggested that if “life safety” was the concern, the county would do better to put money towards updating older homes with smoke detectors.
Swanson was joined in opposition to the sprinkler requirements by spokesmen for area realtors and homebuilders.
“Safety’s a very important issue, as well as property rights,” said Bill Parsley, president of the Middle Tennessee Association of Realtors. “And when you start mandating things that need to be done – this issue kind of came up, and it’s not a big change, and we understand that, but it’s raised a lot of questions.”
Parsley urged the commissioners to consider the restrictions the sprinkler requirements placed on property use, the effectiveness of sprinklers and the cost of installation, which he said would be passed down to the consumers.
County Commissioner Will Jordan explained to Parsley that prior to the inclusion of the sprinkler system option, any land where fire hydrants could not be installed was unable to be developed, and that the removal of the option would prevent the development of that land, and reduce some property values.
“That’s all it is, is an option,” Jordan said. “If there’s sufficient water flow there’s no problem. This is just another tool in the tool box to be able to develop that property in a rural area that doesn’t have fire protection. We did this so we wouldn’t have to turn people down or turn them away and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t develop that property.’”
Representatives for the fields of fire safety, insurance and sprinkler installation were also in attendance, and spoke in favor of the sprinkler regulations.
The Insurance Services Organization, which rates fire departments to give them their ISO rating, requires a fire hydrant be within 1,000 feet of a home, said Larry Farley, the Rutherford County fire chief.
If a fire hydrant is not within the required distance, the rating will rise from a Class Five to a Class Nine, which increases homeowner’s insurance rates, he added.
“My issue is, if you don’t offer some kind of fire protection as far as sprinklers or hydrants, how are you going to insure these homes? And what’s the cost of the insurance going to be?” Farley asked.
Installation of fire hydrants may not be available in some developments because of issues such as water pressure and volume, said Bill Dunnill, general manager of the Consolidated Utility District.
Water pressure and volume are determined by the size of the location’s water lines, and the size of the property’s water line is in part determined by water-quality estimates, he added.
If there is not enough water usage in a location to necessitate larger lines, the water quality will diminish as the water ages, and water that is three or four months old could experience chlorine decay, which produces carcinogens and significantly reduces the drinkability of the water, Dunnill said.
Water pressure also must be maintained at a certain level and adding a fire hydrant to a location could reduce the pressure below the required amount.
Randy Safer, a representative of the National Fire Protection Association, also approved the sprinkler system requirements.
Sprinkler systems provide the best option in fire protection of any of the fire safety equipment available in homes, Safer said. He added smoke alarms don’t always alert everyone in the home, and sprinkler systems can help to suppress the flames.
State Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) also voiced his opposition to what he said he sees as further encroachment by the government into the lives of the county residents, which increases the cost of doing business, or owning property.
“While we have certainly seen government officials attempt to do similar things in other states, every Tennessean should be concerned about what our government is trying to do right here in our back yard ...” Sparks said in a press release on the topic of the sprinkler regulations. “Not only do these regulations hurt the working class, but they also discourage business owners from making other important capital investments in our community.”
Following the two-hour-long public hearing and the commission’s vote to tweak and pass the regulations, Planning Commission member Pettus Read made a motion to forward the portion of the regulations containing the sprinkler requirements option to be the full commission to be considered separately. It passed unanimously.
The other items on the commission’s agenda, including an access easement waiver request for 5121 Leanna Road and a request to rezone 1700 Butler Road to a light industrial zone from commercial, were taken up and settled prior to the opening of the public hearing on the subdivision regulations. Both requests were approved by the commission.
Amendments to change the regulations for exterior display and storage were considered to be too broadly written and the commission voted to send them back to the Planning Department to be adjusted and heard at a later date.
The approved subdivision regulations are set to take effect Tuesday, Oct. 1.