Maine fire sprinkler rules rain on plans for new Bath businesses

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BATH — Claudette Gamache has been ready for more than a year to open an art gallery at 411 Front St.

But the lack of a sprinkler system in the building, which she says is cost-prohibitive and unnecessary, has been holding her back.

“I’m seeing all these little signs about (supporting) small business,” Gamache said Nov. 30. “… But this is not supporting small business. … It’s putting everything on hold.”

It’s a rule that people including state Rep. Jennifer DeChant, D-Bath, and the city’s code enforcement officer, Scott Davis, would like to see relaxed or eliminated. There have been enough questions and complaints that the matter is being reviewed in Augusta.

At least 13 residents wishing to operate businesses out of their homes, known as home occupations, plan to move ahead pending the relaxation or elimination of the sprinkler rule, DeChant said.

Gamache told DeChant she previously operated a gallery out of her Washington Street home, then moved to Phippsburg, and returned to Bath last year to rent the place she currently occupies and reopen the gallery.

But the regulations had changed.

“Now, all of a sudden, in that amount of time, you have to put in a sprinkler system when you’re operating a business out of your home,” DeChant said Nov. 26.

The Legislature enacted the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code, geared toward addressing concerns about inconsistent rules from one community to another, DeChant said. With some smaller towns finding the across-the-board policy difficult to enforce, the rule was changed so it only applied to municipalities with populations of at least 4,000.

Smaller communities can adopt the code if they want to, Davis said Nov. 26, noting that “the benefit of it is, it’s the same code everywhere.”

“I’ve got about 14 home occupations lined up on the runway waiting to take off,” Davis said. “And waiting for the sprinkler requirement to be lifted.”

He said a rule in the code states that “if you have a building that you live in and conduct a business in, it’s called a live-work unit, and the code says live-work units have to be sprinklered.” Offices that occupy less than 10 percent of the floor area of a building are exempt, he said.

“Most people don’t want to (add sprinklers) their house, obviously,” Davis added. “It’s expensive. … I bet it’s at least $10,000.”

Calling the sprinkler requirement “excessive,” he said, “throughout Maine there are a lot of home occupations in single-family houses that are unsprinklered, and we don’t have a loss history with them. … All the codes officers I know agree with me.”

The state Bureau of Building Codes and Standards voted about a year ago to delete the sprinkler requirement for home occupations, “which was great; most of us thought it was kind of extreme to even adopt … that requirement in the first place,” Davis said.

The AG’s office has done a policy review on the matter, and public hearings have been held and due diligence has been done, DeChant said Tuesday. The final step to the change being made is a review by the AG’s office to ensure the information gathered is consistent and legal. Following that review, the fire marshall’s office will implement the change.

The sprinkler rule makes more sense for operations where cooking is involved, or perhaps a bed and breakfast, where people stay overnight or for extended periods, DeChant said. But with low-impact businesses like an art gallery, insurance agency or salon, people are only there for a short period of time, she noted.

“Plus, with our housing stock being so old, the cost that is incurred with trying to do a sprinkler system is very prohibitive,” DeChant said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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Although Claudette Gamache has been ready for more than a year to open an art gallery in Bath, she has been delayed by a statewide code requiring a sprinkler system for the home-based business.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.