Fire Suppression Committee told to rethink approach

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

It looks like Bridgton’s Fire Suppression Committee will once again have to rethink its approach to defining standards for adequate fire protection, if it ever hopes to satisfy the concerns of developers.

On Tuesday, the Bridgton Board of Selectmen told the committee to go back to its original charge of creating a stand-alone ordinance, one that will ultimately need to pass muster in a town-wide vote.

The committee, after researching the issue for many months, was shot down decisively in public hearings last year when it came forward with a stand-alone ordinance that would have mandated sprinkler systems for all new construction in town.

So it took a different tack.

The committee asked Selectmen for permission to work with the Planning Board on language that could be incorporated into the town’s subdivision regulations. The language would apply only to new subdivisions, and developers who wanted to build more than 1,000 feet from a hydrant would have a choice: they could either install sprinklers or build cisterns or fire ponds, to ensure that adequate water could be delivered to the site in case of fire.

Selectmen agreed with the plan.

But on Tuesday, committee member Steve Collins, the Planning Board Chairman, and Glen Garland, the fire chief, sought the board’s blessing to continue their work, to make sure they were proceeding in accordance with their original charge.

The reason was because of a contentious debate that erupted between developer Mark Lopez and Collins at the May 14 Planning Board meeting, just as the board was poised to approve inclusion of the committee’s new standards for fire protection into the subdivision regulations. Unlike many other town ordinances, including its site plan review ordinance, the subdivision standards are not a stand-alone ordinance, and thus do not have to be approved by voters. The Planning Board has authority to draft and approve amendments to subdivision standards, and has done so many times over the years.

Lopez thinks the draft language is still too strict, because it doesn’t allow for waivers from the 1,000-foot rule under certain road and terrain conditions, such as major roads on level terrain. Lopez also questioned the propriety of allowing Collins and another Planning Board member who serves on the Fire Suppression Committee, Brian Thomas, to vote on language they were instrumental in drafting at the committee level. On a more general basis, Lopez argued that it should be taxpayers, and not five members of a board, to decide the important issue of what constitutes adequate fire protection, since the question, if answered too strictly, could scare off developers and impact future growth in the town.

“We hear all the time about potential conflicts — well, this doesn’t look right or smell right,” Lopez is quoted in the minutes as saying, referring to the dual hats worn by Collins and Thomas. “You make a recommendation to yourself and now you are going to sit here and impose your will on the town of Bridgton.”

Collins, Thomas and Planning Board member Dee Miller all favored the Fire Suppression Committee’s new standards. Had they voted on the issue May 14 as expected, the new fire suppression standards would have become law.

Collins said his conscience was clear. “I swore an oath when I got on this board that I would try to protect, among other things, the well-being of the community, to see that it is developed properly,” he said. Miller said there was no conflict because neither man stood to personally gain from requiring sprinkler systems, fire ponds or cisterns.

As far as voting on regulations they help create, said Miller, “We do it all the time.”

Board member Michael Figoli sided with Lopez, saying other “trigger points” other than simply distance from fire hydrants ought to be put into the language to reduce the burden on developers.

Miller said, “We are not here to help developers, we are here to keep Bridgton people safe.”

But Figoli said Bridgton people are developers as well as landowners and citizens. “If we create a standard that could devalue someone’s property, we are not protecting that Bridgton citizen.”

Selectmen on Tuesday did not discuss the merits of the ordinance, but did agree that it made more sense to have what Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz called this “hot potato, being lobbed from one group to another,” decided by voters. Garland assured the board that many other towns have tackled the issue of defining objective standards for fire protection, and that Bridgton could do the same.


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