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Could relaxing fire regulations make it easier to build Accessory Dwelling Units?

The Olympian logoThe Olympian 2 days ago Brandon Block, The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

Housing affordability was front and center in Olympia government this past week as three different actions designed to increase access to housing were aired before the Land Use and Environment Committee.

The committee’s meeting Thursday featured a presentation on the Planning Commission recommendation known as the Housing Options Code Amendments, which would allow denser housing types in the city’s single-family neighborhoods. That recommendation will go before the City Council in December.

It also discussed ongoing tenant protection laws being considered, such as “just cause” rules for eviction and installment plans for move-in fees and security deposits.

But those unaccustomed to getting into the weeds of housing policy debates may be surprised to learn about the third proposed action: a committee recommendation to amend the city’s building codes to remove a requirement that newly constructed Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) install fire sprinkler systems.

The proposal, presented by Olympia Fire Marshal Kevin Bossard, was not one he is particularly excited about, since fire marshals are rarely keen to loosen fire safety regulations.

But it was Bossard’s response to calls by the committee, City Council, the Planning Commission, builders, and housing advocates who are looking at any way to make infill housing such as ADUs more affordable to construct.

Fire codes are largely determined at a municipal level, with each jurisdiction deciding which elements of the International Building Code to adopt. In Washington, Olympia is one of only eight cities that require fire sprinklers in new homes, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). (The others are Bonney Lake, Camas, DuPont, Kenmore, Mercer Island, Redmond, and Tukwila.)

Fire sprinkler requirements have for years been a contentious issue in the world of housing policy. Dozens of states have passed laws explicitly preempting cities from requiring them, according to the NFPA.

In California, one of only two states that requires fire sprinklers in all new residential construction, the state legislature created an exemption specifically for ADUs in 2017, which says that if the primary residence does not have sprinklers, the ADU doesn’t need them either. It basically exempts all ADUs built before 2011, when California began requiring them.

Olympia’s policy proposal is based on California’s. If your house was built before 2014 — the year Olympia began requiring fire sprinklers in all new residential construction — then neither your home nor your ADU would be required to have sprinklers.

It’s a compromise that Bossard hopes gets to the root of the issue many builders are vocal about: the reason that fire sprinklers can add so much cost to constructing an ADU is often tied up with the city’s aging water pipes. Much of the water infrastructure, especially in older neighborhoods, just can’t handle the volume of water necessary to supply both a second dwelling unit and a fire sprinkler system.

That means that building an ADU can require laying new pipes, installing a new water meter, establishing a new connection to the city’s water main, and paying a city hookup fee.

According to builder John Erwin, this can add as much as $8,000-$10,000 to an ADU build. Erwin’s ADU projects, typically remodels or garage conversions, usually cost between $125,000-150,000. For an individual homeowner, it can push the cost of the project beyond their budget.

“It was never the building officials’ intention to have these grossly expensive costs for ADUs. It was just an unforeseen, unintended consequence,” Bossard said.

Bossard said the City Council studied what California had done in carving a narrow exception for ADUs and asked if Olympia could do something similar.

“That’s a hard decision for me to make, and ultimately it’s for the council to approve,” Bossard said. “Now we’re going to have these ADUs that aren’t sprinklered, and I don’t like that, but I also am a very reasonable, open-minded person, and I don’t want to prevent density and population [growth].

“This is an adjustment I’m willing to make to get our community to a safer point,” Bossard added.

The proposal, which will now go to City Council for approval, would only affect ADUs. Single-family homes are still required to install fire sprinklers, as are multi-family apartment buildings and all other new residential construction.

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