The fire at the Chapter House did significant damage to Ithaca's Stewart Avenue

ITHACA, N.Y. — How can Ithaca improve fire safety in the city?


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That was the question raised by Mayor Svante Myrick after a blaze at the Chapter House destroyed two buildings in April.

Photo courtesy of Dave Burbank
Photo courtesy of Dave Burbank

The problem: The Chapter House incident followed a 2013 Collegetown fire that burned down a home and another in 2011 that killed a Cornell senior. So the problem stretches well beyond the Chapter House blaze.

The city can’t arbitrarily come up with new regulations in response. Ithaca is not allowed under New York state law, for instance, to simply mandate that every landlord install smoke detectors.

Group convenes: So, what can be done? City Hall officials — including Ithaca’s fire chief, building commissioner, the director of planning and city attorney — recently convened to discuss that very question.

Common Council members Graham Kerslick and Josephine Martell were also at that meeting.

Kerslick spoke about the group’s work at Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday night and with the Ithaca Voice in an interview on Thursday.

Fire safety idea #1: Right now, Kerslick says, city code mandates that every new sprinkler system must be hooked up to a separate plumbing line. That significantly drives up the cost for local landlords who might otherwise be interested in installing sprinklers.

But it’s not clear the rule is necessary: The sprinklers might be effective even if hooked up to an existing water supply. (This would apply to older buildings; new buildings are already required to have sprinklers.)

“If the code were changed, you could use your existing line to put a valve in and take the sprinkler onto the existing supply,” Kerslick said.

“If that was a change that would be approved, that would reduce the cost and the hurdle to install the sprinkler system.”

The proposal would have to be approved by Ithaca’s Board of Public Works, Kerslick said.

The fire at the Chapter House did significant damage to Ithaca's Stewart Avenue
The fire at the Chapter House did significant damage to Ithaca’s Stewart Avenue
The fire at the Chapter House did significant damage to Ithaca’s Stewart Avenue

Fire safety idea #2: This idea, Kerslick says, is more likely to be controversial and less likely to be implemented. Kerslick stressed it was still being discussed in its preliminary stages and was not yet actively pursued by City Hall.

Nonetheless, here it is: Ithaca officials would change zoning code to allow landlords to increase some residences’ occupancy limits if they install sprinklers.

The occupancy rate, Kerslick explained, is set by the building department based on space and other safety considerations. But landlords would have an added financial incentive to install sprinklers if doing so allowed them to have more tenants, he said.

“If the sprinklers were installed, you could offset that cost with an increased occupancy. That might be of some interest to some people,” he said.

The idea would need much more discussion and research before it moves forward, Kerslick said.

Ithaca Voice coverage of Chapter House fire

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.