County changes ordinance
Board tweaks sprinkler rule

COVINGTON - The Board of Commissioners made several changes to the county's sprinkler ordinance Tuesday night, including increasing the square footage commercial buildings and multi-family residential developments must have before a sprinkler system is required.

Commissioners upped the square footage requirement for commercial buildings from 2,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet. For multi-family residential developments such as apartments, condominiums and townhomes, the square footage increased from 2,000 to 3,600.

The changes were made with the approval of Newton County Fire Chief Mike Satterfield and at the request of members of the development and business community.

"We had a lot of business owners, potential business owners, contractors and developers ask for us to look at (the ordinance) and reconsider," Satterfield said. "When the ordinance was originally enacted, the fire department's capabilities and resources were much less than they are today. We have a larger work force and more equipment and our capabilities to combat fire in that size of a structure are much better. I consulted internally with inspectors and the fire marshal and they agreed this is a good change in the ordinance that we could accept, and it would be a much better benefit to the community by making it easier for business owners to develop."

Sam B. Hay Jr. of Sunbelt Builders said although he has not yet read the new ordinance, he agrees that the previous square footage requirement was too low.

"In many, many places throughout the county, we don't have the volume and pressure of water lines and when you require sprinklers at a place in the county that doesn't have especially the volume, the only alternative is some kind of storage tank and pump," he said. "It certainly makes a hardship on anybody."

Developer Phil Johnson agreed. A recent cost estimate on installing sprinklers at one of his small retail sites was $40,000, he said.

"I think it is awfully burdensome for small retail shops, for instance, to have to have sprinklers," he said. "If you're in a small retail store and a fire breaks out, you would likely be able to get out. Sprinklers are more for property protection than they are life-saving. I think it's a really expensive proposition for small retail establishments.

"It's easy to pass a lot of regulations because standing alone they sound good, but the cumulative effect of a lot of things we do just makes it so burdensome for small businesses to be able to afford to build and occupy a structure," he added.

Even with the reduced restrictions, the county is much less stringent than the state, which allows commercial buildings to be as large as 10,000 square feet before a sprinkler system is required, Satterfield said.

The new ordinance also addresses renovation of commercial buildings. Previously, if the cost to remodel a building was at least 20 percent of the assessed value, a sprinkler system had to be installed. Now the cost can go as high as 50 percent of the assessed value.

"Because of the cost of materials and labor, you can do cosmetic remodeling and spend 20 percent," Satterfield said. "It felt like it was more equitable and fair to increase that to where someone was actually doing substantial remodeling before they are required to put a sprinkler system in."

While requirements for some developments were relaxed a bit, those for group homes and day care facilities were tightened.

These facilities will now be required to have sprinkler systems based on occupancy rather than square footage. Group homes with three or more residents and day cares with five or more children must have sprinklers.

This requirement was added because often these facilities are located in homes that were not built to hold that type of occupancy, and also because some group homes may cater to disabled or elderly people who might need assistance and take longer to leave the building, Satterfield said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.