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Council Requires Sprinklers for High-Rise

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The City Council on Tuesday rejected pleas from a group of mostly elderly homeowners to exempt their high-rise condominiums from a law requiring installation of costly fire sprinklers, citing safety concerns.

The council voted unanimously to require the 51-unit Verdugo Towers at 1151 N. Brand Blvd. to install a basic fire sprinkler system in its hallways, parking garage and first-floor commercial office areas over the next two years. Individual homeowners must install indoor sprinkler systems by the year 2000, under a Fire Department proposal approved by the council.

Although the Fire Department’s plan reduced the cost of putting sprinklers in the 30-year-old building to $212,000 from initial estimates of $1.3 million, the homeowners maintained that it was still too costly. They also complained that the proposal, which called for installation of a low-cost sprinkler system suspended from the ceiling, would be unattractive, and that installation work could stir up dangerous asbestos in the walls.

The residents said they would agree instead to a scaled-back plan, installing sprinklers only in the hallways, garage and office areas, plus one sprinkler at the entrance to each condominium unit. But fire officials countered that the building would not be safe unless sprinklers are installed in all rooms.

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The stalemate between the city and homeowners dates to 1991, when the building commission first rejected the residents’ request to be exempted from a 1989 law requiring all buildings with four or more stories to have sprinklers. In all, 29 buildings were affected, most of them commercial structures and apartment buildings.

Homeowners have said their building deserves special consideration because it is the lone condominium affected by the law, many residents are elderly, and it is located next to a city fire station.

But Fire Chief Richard Hinz has said the building is “at risk to fire, and potentially a catastrophic fire,” because its unique design provides a single stairway or elevator as the only means to reach all 11 floors. Hinz has maintained there is “no substitute” for sprinklers and refused to budge on the department’s position.

Fire officials also say their plan will have minimal impact on the residents. The cost of installing sprinklers will be as little as $4,500 per homeowner, and residents age 62 and older will be eligible for low-cost loans from the city’s block grant funds, said Fire Marshal David Starr.

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