A second way out

Twenty-five people died in a fire in a North Carolina factory in 1991, because they couldn’t get out. Their escape was blocked by chained, locked doors at the Hamlet, N.C., chicken-processing plant where they worked.

That’s the cold fact driving the state’s revised fire-safety code, says Jennifer Gullette of the North Carolina Department of Insurance. Adopted by state legislators in 1994, the code has caught many local property owners unawares — especially the Jan. 1 deadline for bringing their buildings into compliance. That could entail expensive structural changes — such as adding a second exit, or a combination of other fire-safety features — to give workers, residents, customers and tenants an emergency escape route.

Such a law has been on the books since 1953, in less restrictive or comprehensive forms, says Gullette. “But it wasn’t really being enforced,” she notes. Then the Hamlet tragedy occurred. “That’s when [state legislators] started looking at [the rule] again,” Gullette reports.

To toughen enforcement efforts, the N.C. General Assembly gave the owners of existing buildings until Jan. 1, 1999 to comply with the second-exit requirements.

But did they adequately inform building owners?

“The politest word I can use right now is … ‘perplexed,'” says Broadway Arts co-owner Bonnie Hobbs, who complains that she found out about the Jan. 1 deadline “by accident” last May. “There’s been no due process about this. Why weren’t we informed in 1994?” Hobbs wonders out loud.

Under previous building-code regulations, her downtown Asheville structure — built early in this century — satisfied the exit and fire-safety requirements. But the revised code may require her to install a second exit and stairway, or a sprinkling system. And, like many small-business owners, Hobbs — who runs an art gallery and performance space — protests that she can’t afford such renovations any time soon. “Our bottom line is, we have no money and no resources for taking on an additional debt load,” she declares.

Another downtown property owner, who asked to remain anonymous, says he had never heard of the stricter second-exit requirement — or the deadline. “There are a lot of things not up to modern standards in this building,” he remarks. The turn-of-the-century structure has no second stairwell, no fire escape and no second exit … “unless you jump out a window,” says the owner. “I hope [local inspectors] don’t come down too hard on me. It’s not economically viable to bring this building completely up to modern codes. I might have to close down, if this rule was enforced.”

“We’re hearing that a lot,” says Bob Vickery, Asheville’s chief code-enforcement officer. He concedes that the revised rule and its accompanying deadline “slipped up on us,” but assures worried property owners, “It’s not an immediate, close-down-the-building kind of thing.”

For starters, buildings used only for business purposes — such as City Hall, or major offices like the BB&T building — have until the year 2006 to comply with the code (a delayed deadline allegedly inserted in the bill at the last minute by an N.C. legislator in 1994). For other existing buildings, such as residential, mixed-use or retail establishments, local code inspectors will work with owners “to create an equitable time frame for complying,” Vickery explains.

In some cases, building owners may be able to satisfy the code fairly quickly and inexpensively by installing additional fire-safety features in an existing stairway, adding a fire-rated door, or refitting an old, existing fire escape, Vickery points out. And, if the upper floors aren’t being used — which is often the case in downtown buildings — the owner “isn’t obliged to comply,” says Vickery (until and unless those upper levels are renovated for occupancy).

Some smaller structures — an apartment building less than four stories tall and containing fewer than four units per floor, for example — may satisfy the code with just one exit, provided that it meets current safety requirements (such as a short distance from each apartment to the exit), he continues. But many old-building owners may have to install a second stairwell or a new sprinkler system, both costly options. “That could take several years to finance, given the economic impact,” says Vickery.

That news didn’t sit well with members of the Council of Independent Business Owners, who grilled Vickery and Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook on the issue last September, when they first got wind of the pending deadline. “Has anyone in your department gone to Raleigh and said, ‘This is stupid'” asked CIBO Director Mike Plemmons.

Vickery could only laugh. “We’re only the messengers: It’s not our job to tell the legislators [the rule’s] good or bad.”

He told CIBO members that Asheville may be more affected by the 1994 law than other major North Carolina cities, because it has more historic structures in its central business district — and a higher number of historic homes that have been converted to multifamily use. Local terrain also plays a factor, particularly for shops and offices located in the buildings between Wall Street and the lower elevation College Street. What’s street level on Wall Street is the second floor for the College Street side of the building, making it difficult to add a rear exit to these buildings.

“That’s gonna hurt — it’ll cost some money,” predicts local builder Doug Limeberry, speaking about the second-exit rule. Most of the rental-property owners he knows — Lineberry renovates older homes and small apartments — “have buildings with just one exit, so they’ll have to build a stairway.” And higher costs for owners will mean higher rents for tenants, notes Limeberry.

Renovators or owners who’ve just bought a building find out about the rule right away, because city inspectors won’t issue a building permit or a certificate of occupancy until the second-exit rule is satisfied, Limeberry says. But he also observes that legislators “love to dump new rules on everybody, but not help pay for them.”

Some building owners, though, may qualify for tax credits for renovating a historic structure, says Vickery, citing the case of a woman who recently renovated her Montford apartment building.

But therein lies another problem: Adding external stairwells or other fire-safety features may interfere with efforts to maintain the historic appearance of some older buildings, preservationists say — noting that such efforts have sparked the rebirth of Montford, Albemarle Park, downtown and other historic areas of the city in the past few years. Hobbs, for example, has been active in downtown revitalization efforts for nearly 20 years. “I don’t like the idea of destroying the facade of my building,” she declares.

But Paul Bidwell, the chair of Asheville’s Historic Resources Commission, says, “We have to reconcile those feelings with what the law is.” When HRC members were informed of the pending deadline last year, Bidwell wrote state legislators and Department of Insurance representatives, asking if enforcement could be postponed or phased in, and pointing to the law’s considerable impact on Asheville, with its preponderance of older buildings, compared to cities like Charlotte.

The new law, he speculates, could “force businesses out of older buildings into newer ones and out of downtown, which is opposite to what we’ve been doing in Asheville for several years.” And closing down buildings could be detrimental to the city’s tourism industry. “Life safety should always come out on top, but there are economic considerations,” Bidwell emphasizes.

“This is something we have to do; it’s just a question of how,” he continues, suggesting that city and state officials do a thorough job of informing building owners and working with them on compliance.

Gullette points out that local inspectors have a great deal of leeway on enforcement: After identifying noncompliant buildings and informing the owners, it’s up to the inspectors to set a timetable for complying with the code.

And Vickery reports that city staff are working up a letter that will be mailed out to the owners of noncompliant buildings. Once the letters have been sent, the buildings in question will be posted with notices telling visitors, employees and tenants that the premises don’t meet the second-exit requirement. Property owners must then create plans for bringing their buildings up to code.

Posting those notices was recommended by the Department of Insurance, says Asheville Building Safety Director Terry Summey. “The DOI’s logic is that [building owners] will bring their buildings up to code, to avoid liability issues,” he speculates.

But CIBO member Bob Selby has said that, if the city starts posting buildings, they’d better get ready to post City Hall, and maybe the County Courthouse, too — neither of which satisfies the second-exit rule. “What would it cost to put a second stairway in City Hall?” he asked Vickery, back in September.

“I’d hate to guess,” Vickery replied.

“Well, you better, because we’re all going to have to sit here and think about it,” retorted Selby.

Vickery and Summey have thought about it, which is one reason they’re sending letters first — and haven’t posted anyone’s building yet. They’ve also researched City Hall’s specific situation: As a business-use-only building, it has until 2006 to comply with the second-exit rule; in the meantime, they’ve concluded that updating the sprinkler heads installed during renovations a few years ago will probably bring the historic structure up to code.

Vickery also remarks that city staff aren’t busy canvassing the city for noncompliant buildings, which could number as many as 400. He believes that the combined effects of periodic Fire Department and Building Safety Department inspections (which will identify noncompliant buildings), voluntary efforts by owners to comply, and the continued renovation of historic structures (which must be up to code to obtain a certificate of occupancy) will gradually satisfy the stricter exit requirement.

Speaking about the rather open-ended deadline, Bidwell observes, “I would anticipate that the Department of Insurance understands [that] enforcement is something that’s been ignored for a long time, and they seem to be trying to do it [in] a congenial way.” Letting local inspectors work with the owners of noncompliant buildings on a plan and a timetable for meeting the code “is probably as good a position [from DOI] as we can get, at this point,” he says.

Nevertheless, reflects Bidwell, “The last thing anybody wants is for someone to burn up in a fire because the building owner waited to install a second exit.”

For information about the second-exit requirement, contact Bob Vickery at 259-5673. For information about historic-preservation tax credits, call HRC Director Maggie O’Connor at 259-5836.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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