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Fire appeals board may ease rift

Fire appeals board may ease rift

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By Scott Sullivan
Editor
A frigid week that saw Saugatuck Township firefighters called to multiple freeway slide-offs may have seen a thaw in relations between the fire district and township boards.
The latter at its Jan. 3 meeting welcomed Fire Chief Greg Janik’s proposal to update a board of appeals that would hear and decide requests for relief from fire code officials’ orders.
The township board also that night named Chris Roerig — who told members his goal is “to make the problem” (strained relations between them and the fire department) go away” — as its new fire board representative.
After months of deliberations, the township board Aug. 2 last year voted 3-2 approve 2012 International Fire Code amendments over objections by fire district partners Douglas and Saugatuck cities, plus department officers.
The township majority — citing some area builders’ complaints that fire code officials’ interpretation and enforcement of the IFC had been over-reaching — shifted some of those powers, including cost-recovery oversight, to zoning administrator Steve Kushion.
Janik has argued the IFC exists to protect public and firefighters’ safety and the department enforces it impartially. “Lives are at stake,” he said.
Township trustee Roy McIlwaine — who voted Aug. 2 against the amendment, but Nov. 1 for incorporating it into the town- ship’s 2015 code adoption — resigned Dec. 6 after four years as the township board’s fire board liaison.
Roerig, a retired businessman who served as a township trustee from 2004 to 2012, was chosen Jan. 3 from five candidates to fill the new fire board opening. Also applying for what has become a literal and figurative hot seat were residents Jeff Klemm, Brenda Marcy, Andy Prietz and Dan Witt.
“Chris is fair, impartial and has done a great job for the township before,” said Erick Beckman, who has been the township’s other fire board representative since 2008 and now is vice chair of the latter body.
“We need to get talking,” Roerig said of his hope to turn discord into accord between the two boards. “We are nearer a solution than some people think,” he said.
He and Beckman join chair Jane Verplank and Marilyn Starring, representing Saugatuck city; plus Kathy Mooradian and new appointee Aaron Miller on the district fire board.
The district set up a fire appeals board about 10 years ago, said Janik, but it was never used and eventually discarded.
“I was an assistant chief-fire inspector then,” he told The Commercial Record. “We set it up in anticipation of a proposed subdivision that wound up not getting built.”
Among issues then, he said, were finding residents with particularized expertise in fire protection and industrial safety willing to serve on such a review board.
Janik proposed an updated District IFC, Section 108, to the township Jan. 3 and Saugatuck City Council at its next-day workshop, which reads in part:
“In order to hear and decide appeals of orders, decisions or determinations made by the fire code official relative to the application and interpretation of this code, there is hereby created a board of appeals comprised of three members of the fire administrative board. Elected officials may not be appointed to serve as members of the board of appeals in any capacity.”
That would make Starring in Saugatuck city, Beckman or Roerig in the township, and a Douglas resident to be determined as prospective appeals board members.
Each STFD jurisdiction, says the proposed revision, shall appoint one alternate member called to serve in the absence or disqualification of the jurisdiction’s regular member.
The fire code official (Janik or deputy chief Chris Mantels) shall be an ex-officio member of the appeals board, but not have a vote on any matter before the body. The board shall adopt procedural rules for conducting its business, and shall render all decisions and findings in writing to the appellant with a duplicate copy to the fire code official.
Applications for appeals must be based on claims that the code’s intent or rules legally adopted under it have been incorrectly interpreted, code provisions do not fully apply, or an equivalent method of protection or safety is opposed. The board would have no authority to waive IFC requirements.
Board members must be qualified by experience and training to pass on matters pertaining to hazards of fire, explosions, hazardous conditions or fire protection systems.
The board shall meet at regular intervals, to be determined by its chairman. In any event, it will meet within 10 days after an appeal notice has been received.
Decisions shall be promptly filed in writing in the fire code official’s office and open to public inspection. A certified copy will be sent by mail or otherwise to the appellant, and a copy kept publicly posted in the fire code official’s office for two weeks after filing.
“We had it (a review board) in the past, but never once used it,” Beckman said at the Jan. 3 township board meeting. “But we have to have it. What I see here is pretty solid.”
“Steve (zoning administrator Kushion) doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this,” said township manager Aaron Sheridan. “He looked at it and discussed it with our attorney.
“It seems like a no-brainer,” said the manager.
The board voted 5-0 to table action pending further proposal review by the township and district partners’ staff.