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Fire district ceases inspections in town

The Pagosa Springs Fire Protection District alerted the Town of Pagosa Springs that it will no longer conduct any inspections within town limits, according to the town’s Building Official Scott Pierce.

Addressing the Pagosa Springs Town Council at last Thursday’s mid-month meeting, Pierce said the district sent a letter to the town in response to council passing Ordinance 759, which waives certain fire code requirements in order to allow for construction that would otherwise be held up due to the code.

In essence, the ordinance gives town building inspectors final authority over what codes are required for new construction.

Pierce said that, earlier this month, the town received a letter from PFPD Board President Ernest Lattin, which stated, “The delegation of authority provided via the Ordinance is not accepted by the District and the town should make arrangements for the Chief Building Official to appropriately stall all inspections and provide for other enforcement actions within the jurisdictional boundaries of the Town pursuant to the Ordinance.”

Last year, the town considered a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the town, fire district, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and the county that would have allowed development in lieu of standing fire code. That MOU was eventually dropped when a consensus could not be reached between the various entities and council eventually passed Ordinance 759 in early January, amending certain aspects of the 2006 International Fire Code (IFC) that council felt stood in the way of development in town.

At that time, PFPD Chief Ron Thompson said that the amendments to the IFC accepted by council essentially negated the PFPD’s authority to enforce the code while continuing to place liability with the district. Yesterday, Thompson repeated that claim.

Pierce denied Thompson’s claim in his presentation to council. “(I)n fact, the opposite is true,” Pierce wrote. “The ordinance has placed all responsibility for enforcement of the Fire Code for new construction under the auspices of the Town Building Department as well as making the Town the final decision making authority over all other provisions of the Department as well as making the Town ultimately responsible for all of the provisions of the code whereas prior to the adoption of the ordinance the Fire District performed these duties on behalf of the Town.”

Pierce went on to quote Section 104.2 of the IFC, then commented, “It is clear from this language, and was confirmed by an International Fire Code Council staff member that provides Fire Code opinions, that there are not any compulsory requirements in the code for a jurisdiction who has adopted the International Fire Code to perform inspections of new or existing structures.”

“He’s playing with words,” Thompson responded. “He’s trying to tell his council that the fire district is the bad guy, and he’s OK.”

Until he was contacted by SUN staff yesterday, Thompson said he had not heard anything about Thursday’s council meeting, much less anything regarding Pierce’s presentation.

Furthermore, Thompson said, “The town has not contacted us (regarding a draft of the ordinance).”

“Not one time has the mayor, the town manager or the building official contacted us,” he added. “It appeared that they didn’t want our input.”

Thompson stated that although he had been invited to attend the Jan. 4 council meeting (for the second reading and eventual acceptance of the ordinance), the district’s legal counsel had advised against attending the meeting. Instead, legal counsel for the district drafted a letter (which Thompson forwarded to the town) stating opposition to the ordinance and Thompson’s reason for not attending the meeting.

In his presentation to council, Pierce wrote, “(I)t should also be noted that no representatives from the Fire District were in attendance at the January 4th Town Council Meeting for the second reading of Ordinance #759 to voice their opposition to the ordinance’s approval.”

Neither Pierce nor Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem told council that Thompson had sent a letter explaining why he would not attend the Jan. 4 meeting.

Thompson said that the only other correspondence from the town to the district was a letter (dated Jan. 6) alerting the district to the fact that the ordinance had passed.

After Pierce’s presentation, several council members responded to the district’s refusal to conduct inspections.

“They have a duty,” said council member Kathie Lattin. “I expect them to step up to the plate and take care of us.”

Council member Don Volger said, “We’re trying to help our constituents do what they need to do without having to jump through an inordinate amount of hoops.”

Adding to the already bellicose atmosphere, council member Darrell Cotton implied that the town could respond by reducing the mill levy that funds the district.

“It’s not right,” Cotton said. “If they’re not going to do what they’re supposed to do then we should stop paying for it.”

“They’re misinformed,” Thompson said in response. “They don’t pay for it. We’re working within the service plan that we adopted in 1975. The mill levy does not pay for inspections, it pays for fire protection and rescue services.”

“I suppose if they wanted us to start charging for inspections, we could do that,” Thompson said.

In fact, a charge for inspections could be a small price to pay relative to what could happen as a result of the ordinance.

“Will it (the district’s refusal to conduct inspections) affect insurance rates?” Pierce said to council. “Personally, I doubt it.”

While Thompson said that he could not say with any certainty that the lack of fire inspections in town by the fire district would raise insurance costs in town, he added, “There is a potential for higher premiums,” but conceded that a number of variables determine recommendations made by the Insurance Services Office (the agency that advises insurance companies on property and liability risk).

It may be some time before town residents know for sure if Pierce is correct or if Thompson’s hunch is confirmed, regarding the cost of insurance in Pagosa Springs. What is certain is that the district and the town have made the decision to not cooperate with the result being that town building inspectors will be tasked with enforcing fire codes for new construction.

“All the rhetoric about working together?” said Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon. “Well, so much for that.”

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