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(Feb. 1, 2019) Worcester County government made moves last Tuesday to end enforcement of state regulations that require sprinkler systems in stick-built single-family homes. 

The unanimous vote by the Worcester County Commissioners, however, accepts that what they hope to do might not pass muster with state law, as it follows the example of Alleghany County, which continues to observe an opt-out clause allowed by the state in the 2009 building code, but was rescinded in the code’s 2012 version.

Commissioner Jim Bunting moved to write a new permit with language to opt out of requiring sprinklers in new single-family homes by providing a signature line for the owner, builder, and new homeowners to acknowledge that the home is not sprinkled.

In a joint memorandum, Edward Tudor, director of Development Review and Permitting and Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon strongly encouraged the commissioners to keep the sprinkler requirement.

They contended that the cost of such systems has fallen, and that the value of lives and properties saved far outweigh the expense.

“Again we look at it as something that’s required by state law, and we enforce it under the requirements of that,” Tudor said.

He added the document would need to be recorded with deed if the property were to be transferred, and the commissioners would have to approve the document before sending it to the state for comment.

McMahon also told the commissioners that some 3,000 structure fires occurred in Worcester County from 2014-2018, not including Ocean City.

Commissioner Ted Elder, however, countered that the cost of sprinkler systems in rural areas can be prohibitive.

“A lot of people that are trying to build their first home or purchase their first home can’t afford it because of the extreme costs of this in a rural area,” Elder said.

McMahon said installing what the state requires has become increasingly affordable, and added without the well-water side, there are “two companies in the county now that are doing it for a dollar a square foot.”

Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic took issue with that statement.

“I don’t think a dollar a square foot for a sprinkler system is viable,” Mitrecic said.

Mitrecic said prospective homeowners would need to cross the state line to Delaware, where he said there is less expense and headaches.

“I believe that this is hindering building in the county,” Mitrecic said. “That’s my opinion, especially when you can go right across [to] Delaware,” where it is less expensive to build. “I think it’s hurting our county.”

Bunting also reiterated that this exception would apply to single-family homes only.

“I can understand the need for sprinklers in those [multi-family structures] because your neighbor may not be as careful as you,” Bunting said.

Commissioner Bud Church then asked County Attorney Maureen Howarth for clarification on the commissioners’ legal footing.

“The law is still the law,” she said. “You haven’t changed the law. By doing a revised permit, the law is still the same.”

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