As Mammoth attempts to “grease the wheels” for real estate development, some business and property owners are coming to a rude awakening regarding longstanding State and Town requirements to install sprinklers in buildings without sprinkler systems if the building changes use.
According to Mammoth Lakes Fire Marshal Thom Heller, the State has required sprinklers in all residences since 2010, and has required sprinklers for certain sized commercial buildings and for certain uses going back to at least 1994.
In Mammoth, the Fire District has been requiring sprinklers in all buildings 5,000 square feet and larger since 1998.
Heller said that because of Mammoth’s remoteness, climatic conditions, and geologic situation, “the Fire District and the community determined that the requirement for the additional protection was something we were interested in at the time.”
But Heller said that building owners were given an out in 1998: buildings under 5,000 square feet could avoid the sprinkler requirement.
“The protection of the smaller structures was something that the Fire District felt it could defend,” he said.
Meanwhile buildings built before 1994, when the State sprinkler requirement began, also got away without sprinklers.
While some may be familiar with the overall State sprinkler requirement for businesses and residences—many Swall Meadows homeowners learned about the requirement after the Round Fire—the fine print that’s catching some by surprise is that any change in business use in a building without sprinklers requires the new business owner to shoulder the cost of installing a sprinkler system and connecting that system to the Town’s water main.
It’s not cheap.
Mammoth Fun Shop owner Camille Miller said that because she was moving a toy and gift shop into a building originally run as a restaurant—KFC—she would have had to pay for a sprinkler system. However, she and Heller were able to agree upon a food use at the Fun Shop that exempted her from the requirement. Which is why Mammoth Fun Shop serves ice cream, something Miller never originally intended.
Had she not come up with that solution, she said that installing a sprinkler system, creating a lateral connection to the water main, employing traffic control, and other associated costs would have added up to about $67,000.
“I told Tom Heller he could shoot his fire hose across the street at my building,” Miller quipped. “He didn’t think that was funny.”
Miller pointed out the challenge that kind of cost places on business people interested in revitalizing Main Street. “Businesses all along that corridor failed,” she said, so why would anyone want to put in the same kind of business that failed the first time?
Miller also noted that while the State calls the shots when it comes to the fire code, the State’s language does allow for some wiggle room. The State code “change in occupancy” section concludes that building use or occupancy can change, subject to the approval of the building official, “provided the new or proposed use is less hazardous, based on life and risk, than the existing use.”
However, Heller said the local code is more restrictive. That’s because the Fire Department believes sprinkler systems are important.
“Sprinklers can put the fire out, or keep the fire at bay,” he said. “When it gets to the point where we’re using a hose, the fire has expanded to a point where it’s significant.
“Sprinklers are today what the smoke alarm was when I was a kid. We realized over time that smoke alarms can save a tremendous amount of lives … Sprinklers do the same thing.”
But those who have had to install sprinklers, while grateful for the help of the Fire Department, acknowledged the continuing financial burden sprinklers place on their businesses.
One such example is the Lighthouse Church, which purchased the former Oaktree location on Old Mammoth Road in 2011. The building, larger than 5,000 square feet but built in 1992, had no sprinkler system. Because the Lighthouse Church would be changing the building use from commercial to a gathering place—which is considered a sensitive occupancy, said Heller, because of the possibility of injury when bringing together groups of people—Lighthouse Church had to install sprinklers.
Pastor Dave Nelson said the Town and Fire Department were “really good to us over the whole process [of installing sprinklers]… on the other hand, it was a very painful process. They say it’s beneficial, but it’s expensive to install and to annually test and maintain the pipes.”
He said the fire sprinkler systems can easily break down, either causing flooding in the case of a water system, or a dry system can easily rot if any outside moisture gets in the pipes.
Nelson said a contractor quoted him a cost of $100,000 to connect to the water line and install a sprinkler system. Using a plumber who is a member of the church, “We ended up doing it ourselves, but it was still expensive,” he said.
After all was said and done, Nelson realized that the initial quote was probably accurate for the amount of work they had to do.
A similar price quote deterred one Town business altogether from expanding.
According to Heller, Stay in Mammoth Property Management Company wanted to create a laundry facility for its business in an existing space dedicated to storage (Stay in Mammoth’s owner declined to comment for the story).
“In the fire world, Laundromats are considered high risk because of dust and lint,” Heller said. The Fire District therefore informed Stay in Mammoth that it would have to install a sprinkler system.
According to Realtor Matthew Lehman, who knows the business owner, sprinkler installation would have cost about $100,000.
“The owner is trying to do what he can to save money and compete … He was trying to expand his business,” Lehman said. He added that the owner had already invested about $20,000 into expanding the building’s plumbing to bring it up to code before installing washing and drying machines.
Lehman argued that both the State and local fire codes are cost prohibitive, creating yet more roadblocks to business investment in Mammoth and other California communities.
“I look around Mammoth and I see all the empty commercial space … People don’t want to do business here,” he said; “they can’t.”
Miller voiced a similar frustration: “I think the Town of Mammoth Lakes Fire Department has the unfortunate task of enforcing State fire codes,” she said. “I’m sure Thom is trying to make things happen; I don’t think he’s an obstructionist … I just want to make sure that if there’s any room for creativity [within the codes], we work together to find it.”
If not, Miller said she hoped “we create awareness as a Town that we have this infrastructure need,” so the Town can consider expanding its infrastructure “to allow businesses to comply with the fire code.”
Heller said he believed the infrastructure problem lay not with the Town, but with dated properties that lack the necessary piping to connect to the Town’s main line. “Now new occupants are having to replace the water line that feeds the building,” he said. “It’s the lateral that needs to be upgraded.”