City council postpones changes to fire code

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Colorado Springs City Council put off voting on changes to the fire code for reconstruction in Mountain Shadows, following opposition from residents who lost their homes in the Waldo Canyon fire.

Council heard the suggested changes two weeks ago, which included “hardened” structures with stucco or cementious siding, trees and bushes set back from home and decks made out of a plastic-wood compound.

Fire Marshall Bret Lacey said he had clarified some of the language, letting people know that it’s fine to have deciduous trees near homes – but that conifers and pines were not permitted.

“Those have a lot of pitch, and they’ll burn quickly,” he said. “But deciduous trees aren’t a problem. We wanted to let people know that.”

But residents expressed concerns that insurance companies might not pay for the upgrades, and some said they felt like their neighborhood was being singled out for more stringent codes after the Waldo Canyon fire.

“This feels unfair,” said Cindy Maluschka, a resident of Mountain Shadows who lost her home. “It feels like, I don’t know, another wrong being done to you that you can’t do anything about.”

Originally, the city wanted to examine the fire codes for all new construction in the wildland-urban interface, but the Home Builders Association asked for more time to get buy-in from all its members. The city agreed, and issued an emergency ordinance just for Mountain Shadows. An ordinance changing the fire code throughout hillside neighborhoods was scheduled for October.

The intent, said Chief of Staff Laura Neumann, was to assist homeowners who wanted to rebuild quickly – and to get the code in place for others who needed the rules to be placed into law before insurance could pay for it. Then, the city would pass regulations for the rest of the hillside neighborhoods. Instead, they will now decide fire codes for new construction in the hillsides in a single ordinance in four weeks.

But there seemed to be a great number of misconceptions about the new rules: first, many homeowners at City Council seemed to think the rules included indoor sprinkler systems and monitored fire alarms. The new rules do not cover either of those things, and the HBA opposes both – saying they add between $15,000 and $20,000 onto the cost of building a house.

But the suggested regulations, using stucco or cement siding and a deck made out of plastic-wood composites like Trex, don’t add much, said John Cassiani, president of the Home Builders Association.

“For a rancher, it’s pretty much even,” he said. “For a two-story, it’s probably 1 to 2 percent more.”

Council member Angela Dougan questioned whether the new regulations were the right ones to stop another fire.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the horizontal surfaces that are the problem – any kind of deck will burn,” she said. “And researchers say that trees need to be about 66 feet away from a structure. And that just isn’t practical.”

The city plans at least two more meetings with the Mountain Shadows residents to get buy-in for the new codes. The first is slated for tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at the Chipeta Elementary School gym.