Maryland sprinkler bill would end local opt-out provision

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ANNAPOLIS — A Senate bill that would require all new homes to be built with indoor sprinkler systems is getting push-back from senators who say it could intrude on local building codes set by county governments.

The Senate will continue debate Wednesday on the legislation, which would strip local jurisdictions of their ability to opt out of state building standards that require sprinklers.

Sponsors say the bill could save lives and prevent fire damage by forcing compliance from many rural counties that have declined the sprinkler mandate.

But rural Republicans say the bill could drive up building costs and home prices and argue it is an attack on local authority as part of what they have characterized as a “war on rural Maryland.”

The House passed its own version of the bill this month.

“We can do this on our own,” said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, Dorchester Republican. “We don’t need big government telling us you’ve got to do this.”

The state most recently updated its building standards this year and is required to do so every three years to keep its standards in line with the International Building Code.

Local governments in Maryland have six months to make local amendments as long as they do not prohibit code enforcement or weaken energy conservation and efficiency.

Much of the state has adopted standards set by the state Department of Housing and Community Development that require sprinklers in all new houses, apartments and other residential dwellings.

However, many jurisdictions — mostly in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore — opted out of the requirement in 2009.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, St. Mary’s Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, says his bill is not an attack on local decision-making but is rather designed to help firefighters and drastically increase one’s odds of surviving a house fire.

Mr. Dyson, whose Southern Maryland district includes many rural communities, said fire officials have backed the proposal and estimate sprinkler installation would add only about 1 percent to the cost of a house while potentially saving thousands in damage.

“This isn’t a government bill. This is meant to save our lives,” he said Tuesday during a lengthy floor debate. “If you’re in that bedroom at 10 o’clock at night, and this is when most of these fires happen … this is so important.”

Nonetheless, opponents have questioned his sprinkler cost estimates and argue the bill could have many hidden costs in the forms of maintenance and potential water damage.

While criticism came largely from the 12 Republicans in the 47-member chamber, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat, also questioned the bill.

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