Board nears goal for new fire protection standards

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

With equal parts caution and determination, the Bridgton Planning Board moved ahead Tuesday with a long-studied plan to adopt tougher fire protection standards for subdivisions.

A workshop on Tuesday, Oct. 29, has been set to finalize the language for those standards, crafted as an amendment to the subdivision ordinance, which will then be subject to a later public hearing and possible adoption by the board.

The board is proceeding with caution, because it doesn’t want to raise an outcry that the standards are too tough; and with determination, because more and more subdivisions are sprouting up in remote areas of town that fire trucks cannot easily reach, without a hydrant or water source nearby.

“I think we’ve been tap-dancing around this long enough,” said member Dee Miller, who even wants to require developers to tell buyers, in writing, that the house lot they’re buying is more than 1,000 feet from a public fire hydrant.

Miller’s proposal was tabled Tuesday pending a legal opinion from the Maine Municipal Association.

It’s been well over a year since a Fire Suppression Committee was created, and its proposed ordinance for mandatory sprinkler systems for all new subdivisions and commercial construction was shot down. Since then, the committee and the Planning Board have been inching methodically forward, and have settled on a new approach, one that is limited only to subdivisions, and gives more flexibility to developers who want to site a subdivision more than 1,000 feet from a public fire hydrant.

Under the proposed amendment, developers can meet the test of providing for an adequate water supply for fire protection through any of these methods:

• Perennial or man-made fire pond with an approved dry hydrant

• Underground storage reservoir (cistern) with an approved dry hydrant

• Approved pumping relay station

• Approved residential sprinkler systems in dwelling unit

To make the standard even more flexible, a combination of methods can be used so that, for example, only a small portion of the development would require the more expensive option of sprinkling, if the rest of the lots can be served by a pumping relay station.

Currently, the subdivision ordinance contains only minimal language to define the meaning of “adequate fire protection.” In several recent development plans heard by the board, even though serious questions have been raised over the town’s ability to provide fire protection, the board has felt powerless to impose more stringent requirements, such as for sprinklers or cisterns, that developers have maintained place an undue financial burden.

On Tuesday, Bridgton Fire Chief Glen Garland said that in order to knock down a house fire, a pumping relay station needs to be capable of delivering 250 gallons of water a minute for two hours, or 30,000 gallons of water. In a multi-town fire drill last summer, firefighters verified they could keep up such a water supply by stringing hoses no longer than a mile and a half from the water source. The relay station itself also needs to be no more than 1,000 feet from the house, and developers must provide adequate turn-around room so that engines can maneuver and water tanks can be set up.

A case in point, said Garland, is the recently-approved Mountain Village subdivision. Once the infrastructure for the development was completed, the town found that the relay station area did not meet the board’s requirements. A formal letter is now being sent to the developers from Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker to require that siting adjustments be made.

Garland said the department has been slowly upgrading its hoses in recent years to use a larger diameter hose. He also said his department will be creating a detailed map of all dry hydrant locations in town and inspecting the water source to make sure it is being maintained.

“Not to pick on them, but a case in point is on Raspberry Lane,” said Garland, where a fire pond, created when the subdivision was approved in the 1980s, has grown over since then, and is no longer a year round water source. “A lot of water that used to be there, isn’t there now,” he said. And because it is a private subdivision, the issue of ownership and maintenance of the fire pond is not clear.

Miller suggested that fire ponds be added to the definition of infrastructure in the ordinance to make plain that such ponds need to be maintained just as much as the ditches and culverts along the subdivision road.

Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins noted that the amendment specifically refers to standards adopted by the National Fire Prevention Association, or NFPA, for both sprinkler systems in residential homes as well as water supplies for suburban and rural firefighting.

“We’re trying to keep this as third-party as we can” to minimize the chances of a battle over a subjective interpretation, and rely instead on those considered experts in the field of firefighting, Collins said.

The board discussed a legal opinion from MMA that indicated they need not be held to a vote taken in May, after the sprinkler ordinance was abandoned, directing the Fire Suppression Committee to continue its work and come back with either a stand-alone ordinance or revise an existing ordinance. A few weeks later that month, Selectmen also voted to have the committee work with the board on a stand-alone ordinance.

The committee, however, in their deliberations, decided it was wiser to amend existing subdivision regulations than work on a stand-alone ordinance. Richard Flewelling, assistant director of MMA’s Legal Services Department, stated in a letter that “No final decisions were made nor vested rights established by virtue of May’s vote” by the board, and the board was free to take a different direction if it so desired.

“The Planning Board is free, in my opinion, either to maintain its earlier position or to change its mind using its normal procedures for new action and without any special procedural constraints,” Flewelling said. He added that the same would apply to the Board of Selectmen.

“I don’t think this should be a stand-alone ordinance,” Miller said. “(Ensuring adequate fire protection is) a responsibility the planning board already has.” To create a separate ordinance that requires voter approval, she said, “would be tantamount to having the town vote on road standards.”

Collins was reluctant to approve substantive changes to the amendments Tuesday, because board members Mike Figoli, Fred Packard and alternate board member Adam Grant were all absent. He said state law requires that the board hold a public hearing on the amendments before taking a formal vote.

Miller disagreed with holding off voting on changes to the language, and several language changes were approved. Other refinements may result from the Oct. 29 workshop, after which a formal public hearing will be scheduled.

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