After Southview fire, calls for changes to building code – and lingering resentment over a previous fire safety ordinance

By Bridget Manley

The Southview fire that displaced more than 40 people and made national news last month was ruled accidental in nature, but spread without triggering the sprinkler system — in large part because the fire took hold in the unoccupied attic where sprinklers aren’t required.

The sprinkler system in the building did not go off during the fire, according to Harrisonburg Fire Chief Ian Bennett.

The building, Bennett said, is built to current state sprinkler code standards for a residential system. That means no detection or suppression systems are required in areas where people do not reside, such as the attic.

In the case of the Southview fire, flames moved into the attic and smoke then set off fire detectors, but the sprinkler system did not go off.

“The way these fires work, they start on the outside,” Bennett said. “They run up the outside –– rapidly up the side into the attic space, which is all wood trusses, and they burn across the attic and back down. The entire time that process is taking place, there’s no detection or suppression.”

Bennett said he and other fire officials in the state have been lobbying for sprinkler systems in unoccupied spaces for years, to suppress exactly the kind of fire that occurred at Southview.

“We’ve been fighting for years … to get sprinklers in all buildings, honestly,” Bennett said.  “And to upgrade these types of structures. But we’ve been unsuccessful with the building industry, lobbying against that.”

The fire has also triggered anew a several-year disagreement between the City of Harrisonburg, state legislators and lobbyists for the apartment management industry over a city ordinance enacted in 2015, prompting legislative action in the General Assembly and culminating in a legal battle that lasted more than a year.

The disagreement

The recent fire and investigation into its cause scraped off the fresh scab of a multi-year battle between the city of Harrisonburg, state officials and lobbyists for the apartment management companies in Virginia.

After responding to more than 200 fires, including one in 2014 at the Chestnut Ridge Apartment complex, the Harrisonburg Fire Department asked city council to create an ordinance requiring apartment complexes to move mulch 18 inches from structures.

City council approved the ordinance in April of 2015. Then-council member Kai Degner was in favor of the ordinance. He tells The Citizen that “our city council didn’t agree on much, but all five of us were on the exact same page.”

The ordinance was intended to stop fires ignited in mulch by cigarettes and other fire hazards. The Virginia Apartment Management Association (VAMA) opposed the ordinance and tried to stop the city from moving forward.

CEO Patrick McCloud says VAMA went to the General Assembly after trying to work with the city on the details of the ordinance.

State Senator Mark Obenshain and Delegate Tony Wilt introduced legislation in the 2016 General Assembly session aimed at nullifying the ordinance.

The legislation was written to negate the new city policy, saying “any ordinance in effect and any ordinance adopted by the governing body of the City of Harrisonburg shall not include in any local fire prevention regulations a requirement that an owner of real property who has an occupancy permit issued by the City use specific landscape cover materials or retrofit existing landscape cover materials at such property.”

The bill passed the General Assembly and was signed into law by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

In 2016, however, the city revised the ordinance so that mulch already in place would not have to be removed, but new landscaping would need the 18-inch buffer. VAMA responded with a lawsuit, but the court ruled in favor of the city in 2018.

In response, Obenshain and Wilt again introduced legislation intended to negate the ordinance. The General Assembly passed the bill again, but Gov. Northam vetoed it in 2018. The fire department can now enforce the mulch ordinance in city limits.

McCloud said VAMA opposed the ordinance because the city did not work with the apartment industry to discuss other ideas for fire prevention, and because of the Dillon Rule, which puts into question whether the city had the right to put forward the ordinance in the first place.

“In Virginia, cities only have the power to enact things that the General Assembly has authorized them to enact,” McCloud said. “We wanted to work with the city on it. Unfortunately when we went to the city, the city had no interest in working with us on the issue, so we went and filed the claim.”

The ordinance and surrounding battle still sparks frustration among those involved in the debate.

“Frustrating is definitely the word,” said Bennett, the fire chief. “The only thing we care about is individuals’ safety. I mean, life safety is what we do every day, it’s our number one priority, so it does get frustrating. Local government, you know, we are very fortunate in Harrisonburg. We have this mulch ordinance that’s been in place, so the city of Harrisonburg truly understands the safety of its residents and supports public safety.”

McCloud said the apartment industry also was frustrated because it seemed to them that the city council didn’t care what any apartment owners had to say about the issue.

“One of our frustrations with the entire issue is that the city could have been much more effective had they actually engaged in this issue to discuss this issue as opposed to just ramming it through,” McCloud said.

Bennett says he was surprised that local legislators would oppose the mulch ordinance.

“We didn’t expect some local legislators to oppose our local ordinance, not at all,” Bennett said.

Obenshain and Wilt did not respond to The Citizen’s requests for comment.

The next battle in fire safety?

Adam Fletcher, Director of Planning and Community Development, said one of the main priorities of the building code is to protect life and then protect property, so he understands why fire officials would want sprinklers in unused areas.

“Public safety is one of those situations that nobody ever wants to say ‘no more regulations’ because everybody wants your building to be safe,” Fletcher said. “Every fire department [says] ‘yeah, put sprinklers in every building, that’s going to save lives’.”

Siding is also a concern, according to Bennett. Extremely flammable vinyl siding is used in most new home construction, according to U.S. Census data.

Bennett says that in the Southview fire, the siding contributed to the fire’s fast spread from the first floor to the attic, providing an extremely flammable conduit for the fire to travel.

“It doesn’t take very long. Ninety seconds, typically, depending on the weather conditions and the wind, it can easily go from the first floor to the attic,” Bennett says.  “We believe that’s what happened in this one, based on the initial caller and then the information that it was already in the attic. It probably took ninety seconds to go from the first floor to the attic.”

Bennett says that although there are lots of prevention measures that could be taken to save lives and property, judging by how the last battle went with the city’s mulch ordinance, he’s not counting on local state legislators to help change the code.

Fletcher tells The Citizen that while state code allows municipalities to adopt stricter building regulations, they cannot affect construction methods or materials, or include “the voluntary installation of smoke alarms and regulation and inspections thereof in commercial buildings where such smoke alarms are not required under the provisions of the Code.

Harrisonburg building official Mike Williams says that he believes sprinklers in the attic would have slowed the Southview fire.

“Yes, I think it would have helped,” Williams said. “Do I want it or not want it? I’m not sure. I think what I can say is that there are powers that exist in the form of lobbies in the state legislature that are powerful and have influence on this kind of a decision. So, the professional organizations that I belong to that would propose something like this – not that it couldn’t get done, but that it would be a fight, I’m pretty sure.”

Fletcher also notes that so far, they have not been asked by anyone at the city to look into asking state representatives to change state code.

McCloud says the apartment industry has encouraged the city to offer tax breaks to property owners for sprinkler system retrofits.

“One of the things we encouraged the city to look at back in 2017 and 2018, was taking advantage of their abilities and their current code to do tax incentives to get retrofits on things such as this,” McCloud said. “The city has that capability right now if they wanted to. They could do tax abatements for property owners that invested in that type of technology.”

To smoke or not to smoke

IMG_2112After talking to witnesses and investigating the scene, the Harrisonburg Fire Department ruled that the fire was accidental in nature, caused by an improperly discarded cigarette.

“[It involved] a combination of looking at the evidence itself and talking to witnesses is how it was concluded,” Bennett said of the investigation.

The chief declined to say if they spoke to the person who was smoking, saying only “we talked to witnesses.”

McCloud, however, takes a stronger stance.  Noting that his organization does not represent The Hills, the company that manages the Southview apartments, McCloud still believes that the person smoking should bear some responsibility. He noted that his organization had raised the issue of smoking with the city in 2017.

“I had asked –– specifically requested at the time –– that then-Mayor Chris Jones come out and support the apartment industry in evicting people who create life and safety health issues for other residents. The city refused to go on the record encouraging evictions against people who create fire and safety issues.”

Mark Evans, the public relations manager for The Hills Southview apartments, said in a statement to The Citizen “in the property’s policies, we already have measures in place to limit smoking. Unfortunately, those policies were not followed in this case.”

Evans also addressed the rumor that those displaced by the fire were still being required to pay rent. “Every resident directly impacted by the fire has been offered housing at The Hills in an equivalent apartment,” Evans said. “Those who are living at the property are being charged rent as would any other resident.”

As far as when or if new construction will begin or the old building will be taken down, Evans says there is no schedule yet for tear down or start date for new construction.

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