SANDY SPRINGS, GA — The city of Sandy Springs is gaining support in its fight against proposed legislation that would thwart its attempts to prohibit so-called “stick-built” multi-family buildings in its jurisdiction. Mayor Rusty Paul and Fire Chief Keith Sanders were joined by State Sen. John Albers and members of Build with Strength to outline their opposition to House Bill 876.
The legislation, which passed the Georgia House last week and is now under consideration in the Senate, would restrict local governments from banning the use of wood as construction material. A press conference organized by Build with Strength, a national coalition advocating for strengthening national building codes and safer communities, was held Friday morning at Fire Station 2 on Johnson Ferry Road to make the city’s position on the legislation clear.
Albers, a Republican from Roswell and longtime volunteer firefighter, said he would do what he can, including supporting amendments, that would allow local cities to determine how structures should be built in the city. He noted it was important for the state to have a great wood industry as well as quality apartments.
“However, there are reasonable and responsible parameters that may be put in place” to ensure local governments are committed to protecting the lives of residents, Albers added (For more news like this, find your local Patch here. If you have an iPhone, click here to get the free Patch iPhone app; download the free Patch Android app here).
As readers recall, the City Council in 2016 passed an ordinance that requires any new building more than three stories and exceeding 100,000 square feet be constructed with noncombustible materials such as steel or concrete. The city’s change came months after two separate apartment fires displaced several residents and injured at least two children.
Chief Sanders, who began his career as a firefighter in 1979, said fires nowadays are burning hotter and are destroying structures at a quicker pace due to the type of materials — such as glue — that are added as part of the construction process. Today, there are multi-family residences in Sandy Springs that are higher than five stories and sit on top of 20-feet concrete structures reserved for retail and office uses. While fire trucks have pretty much remained the same since the 1970s, agencies have better equipment and superior training to assist in calls involving fires at these type of structures.
“But because of our properties today and our communities today have become more dense, the fire today burns hotter faster and the structure is much more less safe for my personnel, my firefighters,” he added. His top priority when he starts his day is to turn on his radio to ensure “my folks go home safe.”
Sanders showed the audience a demonstration where his employees constructed a wood-framed dollhouse using the same materials employed by builders of multi-family projects. The employees then set fire to the dollhouse and another structure of a similar size using safer material to show how rapidly the buildings catch fire.
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“I’m concerned about the safety of my personnel, the safety of firefighters across the United States of America,” Sanders said. “We can do this much safer and we need to think about it.”
For Mayor Rusty Paul, the issue is also about safety since “one of the worst nightmares” any public official can have is for a firefighter to lose his or her’s life while on duty. It’s also about protecting the lives of residents who call these units home. What drove the point home for him is when a woman had to jump from a third-story window to escape a raging apartment fire in 2015. Earlier in that same year, two girls and their mother also had to leap from a balcony to avoid a fire that took out 16 units.
Along with the safety component, Paul also said the Georgia Constitution allows local jurisdictions to implement ordinances that would protect their citizens and quality of life. Along with the city’s ordinance, Sandy Springs has also amended its code to require multi-family buildings use intumescent paint on exposed and untreated wood surfaces, roll out automatic stovetop fire suppression methods and install fire extinguishers in apartment units that do not have a working sprinkler system.
After the mayor wrapped up his comments, he was taken to task by one resident Lon Sibert, president of Renewable Resource Associates, Inc., who asked if Paul would be willing to hear from field experts who could provide a different perspective on the issue of stick-built apartments.
“As a citizen of Sandy Springs I’m equally concerned about safety,” he said, adding he’s a former firefighter who has pulled dead bodies out of fires.
Paul told Sibert he would be willing to discuss the issue with him, as long as any alternatives he proposes are safe.
Later, Paul said the feedback he’s received from residents expressing opinions about the issue has been to commend the city for implementing “wise policy.” The mayor said conversations about these changes initially began as a way to curb the rising tide of multi-family apartments in the city. However, he began to shift his rationale for the changes from slowing down development to the safety of Sandy Springs residents who live in these buildings after Sanders show him video clips of apartment buildings rapidly succumbing to these fires. Slowing down residential growth, he added, is not longer an issue on this topic, since the Next 10 initiative overhauled the city’s land use plan and zoning ordinances.
As a mayor whose roots began as a tree farmer in Alabama, Paul said he lives in a wood-framed home and is not opposed to using wood as construction material. Wood is a perfectly good product for 90 percent of projects out there. However, Paul said he would be willing to listen and make changes if anyone can show the city that there are other alternatives to banning stick-built apartments that are just as safe and effective as the city’s current policy.
“It’s just that this is the only tool that we have right now to ensure the safety of the people who live in these buildings and the people who have to respond in case (of a fire),” Paul added.
Photo: screenshot of Sandy Springs Fire-Rescue demonstration on how fast wood-framed homes succumb to fire. Credit: city of Sandy Springs