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Renovation prompts safety concern

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By LPR Staff
Editor/POST-REGISTER

The renovation of two buildings in the downtown historic district brought a difficult question before the Lockhart City Council on Tuesday: How does a town measure safety against development.

That question was brought forward by Fire Marshal Clint Browning, who appealed a decision made earlier this month by the city’

s Construction Board of Appeals, who suggested a prior fire marshal may have miscommunicated a city code to the owners of the buildings, causing them to improperly plan for their renovation.

At the center of the debate is a rarely-used code adopted by the Lockhart City Council in 2006, dealing specifically with fire prevention in historic buildings, particularly those that are slated for mixed use – in this case, residential and commercial.

The storm of controversy started, property owners said, when an informal walk-through of the property with then-fire marshal Mark Baker led them to believe they would not need to install a sprinkler system in the building, and that other fire prevention measures could be taken.

However, when plans for the project were submitted to Browning’s office for review in September, he interpreted the code to mean a sprinkler system would be required. That decision led the owners to an appeal with the Construction Board, which finally culminated in the Council being saddled with the difficult decision on Tuesday.

The owners of the property plan to use the building not only as commercial and residential rental property, but also as their primary residence. That desire triggered the need for the sprinkler system under a “mixed use” designation, a requirement the owners said they were unaware of until Browning reviewed the plans.

“When we did the initial [portion of the project, creating an office in the front, lower level of one of the buildings], we made it clear that we intended to have the residence,” said Fran Lozano, who along with her husband owns the Main Street properties. “And no one said anything about the sprinkler at that time.”

Lozano suggested the addition of the sprinkler system would be cost-prohibitive, indicating she had received quotes in excess of $32,000 for the installation.

However, Browning brought forth evidence indicating a rise in national figures on residential fire deaths, and said his interpretation of the code, in his professional opinion, was correct.

“Since I only took this office recently, I discussed it with other, more experienced fire officials [including one recognized by the State of Texas as a leading authority in fire prevention],” Browning said. “And they were of the same opinion, that I am interpreting the code correctly.

After lengthy and somewhat heated discussion, in which several members of the council expressed displeasure with the code itself and suggested a need to review the existing code for changes that might make development of the downtown area easier, the council finally voted 5-2 to uphold Browning’s position to require the sprinkler system.

“As much as I hate for the property owner to do it, I have to move that we uphold the appeal [and Browning’s position],” District Three Councilmember Lew White said upon asking for action on the item.

The rest of the council echoed their sympathies and regrets, suggesting they had no other option, under the advice of City Attorney Peter Gruning, but to uphold the code.

Mayor James “Jimmy” Bertram offered his apologies, suggesting the Lozanos were not in the wrong or at fault, but were perhaps misinformed at particular steps in the process, including the idea that their contractor should have been aware of the sprinkler requirements in the code.

In other business:
The council discussed sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency in regards to changing certain air quality requirements that might have detrimental impact on Lockhart.

They discussed hiring a firm to work with the city and with other area agencies toward redistricting after the completion of the 2010 Census.

The council discussed participation with other agencies in Caldwell County in the formulation of a Wildfire Protection Plan, at the request of Fire Chief Jerry Doyle.

The Lockhart City Council meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in the Glosserman Conference Room at Lockhart City Hall. The meetings are open to the public and televised on Time Warner Cable Channel 10.

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