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Building commission urges repeal of Greek house sprinkler rule

Sunday, January 6, 2008 | 6:34 p.m. CST; updated 12:03 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

COLUMBIA — A year after the City Council approved an amendment requiring fraternities and sororities to install sprinkler systems by the end of 2012, the city’s building commission is pushing for a repeal.

The council will discuss a report from the Building Construction Codes Commission at its meeting on Monday that asks the council to scrap the amendment, which was adopted along with international fire codes.

After the ordinance was passed, citizens and other groups protested the requirement, saying that some organizations would have trouble paying to upgrade their systems.

In his memo to the council, Fred Malicoat, who chairs the commission, wrote that the ordinance could not be equally enforced.

“This commission heard testimony that some Greek chapters rent houses from private owners and use them as unofficial annexes,” Malicoat wrote, “but those structures would probably not be affected by the new ordinance.”

At the same time, some organizations have annexes on property that they own and would subject to the new ordinance.

“For those chapters, the expense of compliance would probably be significantly greater,” Malicoat wrote.

However, the report also includes a memo from Columbia Fire Chief William Markgraf protesting the amendment’s repeal.

Markgraf wrote that Greek houses inaccurately testified before the council about the cost of installing sprinklers in their buildings. The groups said the cost of installing sprinklers would be about $30 per square foot. Local sprinkler installers have placed estimation bids of only $3 to $5 per square foot, Markgraf wrote.

Markgraf also wrote that the Fire Department supported extending the deadline for the houses to make the necessary changes.

Representatives from fraternities and sororities objected to the requirement and said it discriminated against Greek housing by not including other multi-tenant housing, such as apartments.

The memo said the amendment focused on Greek housing due to a fatal fire in 1999 at the Sigma Chi fraternity house. But Markgraf and Malicoat each had a different interpretation about what that incident demonstrates.

Malicoat wrote that several people said the fire couldn’t be prevented because the man who died “essentially encapsulated his bed with drywall for privacy purposes, and the fire started at the opening of the enclosure.”

Markgraf wrote that the incident was part of a larger trend nationally.

“Across the country, over 100 college students have lost their lives in Greek housing, residence hall, and off-campus fires,” Markgraf wrote.

The memo also stated that “numerous communities” and four Big 12 universities and the cities where they are located have adopted similar codes.

“I think there should be a public hearing on it,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said, adding that he would try to see that one is held.

The council agenda also includes:

n Appropriating $250,000 that will be received from the increase in cable fees. Since this money has not been figured into 2008’s budget, recommendation is that the council use at least part of the money to fill vacancies in the Columbia Police Department.

n Approving a settlement agreement with U.S. Cellular amounting to one-time revenue of $580,053.83. If approved, the city will give about $29,000 to the Missouri Municipal League as compensation for their efforts in the lawsuit over backpayment of taxes. City Manager Bill Watkins said that the city is cautiously optimistic about reaching settlements with AT&T and Sprint.

n A report on Columbia police staff numbers compared with police staffing numbers of similar cities that are home to Big 12 universities.


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