Fire Officials & Firefighters "Confused" Over Township's New Fire Rules
Saugatuck Township officials’ amendments to the area fire code approved at last month’s township board meeting has left local fire department personnel extraordinarily confused and with a number of unresolved issues they say presents potentially disastrous consequences.
At Wednesday’s township board meeting, Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIIwaine acknowledged, “There is a lot of confusion. I was in the fire board meeting (August 21) and I could see that.”
McIlwaine, who is a township representative on the fire board, voted to change some aspects of the township’s fire regulations while opposing other changes.
“We owe (the Township Fire Board an explanation. We should be able to have a discussion with the Fire Board and explain the rationale of what we did rather than leaving it up in the air,” added McIIwaine.
Township officials had bandied about September 11 as a possible date for holding a special workshop to address those issues, but the meeting never materialized.
The township is now the only constituent member of the fire district that now has a different fire code and cost recovery policy than the others—the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas which, along with the township, make up the Saugatuck Township Fire District.
Amid heavy criticism for the changes from fire officials, firefighters, township residents and officials of Saugatuck and Douglas, township leaders argue the changes were necessary to cut red tape, citing area builders that have complained that the International Fire Code (IFC) - which the township’s fire rules and regs have been based on for decades - and the fire department’s interpretation of those fire rules and regs have occasionally been overreaching.
But fire department and other critics strongly criticize the township’s move, saying it appears the fire code change effort - led by Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Township Manager Aaron Sheridan - was “ill-conceived, ill-informed and unnecessary” and presents a danger to area homeowners, business owners and the township’s firefighters as well.
Critics say - and were proven correct - that the fire code changes were initially done in secrecy by Rudich and Sheridan without input from other township leaders, fire department officials or officials from the fire district’s partnering governments (Saugatuck and Douglas) whose officials have expressed anger and concern over the township move.
When fire officials and others finally learned of Rudich and Sheridan’s secret efforts to change long-standing fire codes and cost-recovery ordinances, both township officials hurriedly tried to rush through those ordinance changes with a quick vote of the Saugatuck Township Board with almost no prior public notification to township residents of what they were doing.
Additionally, legal questions have now arisen over the township’s ordinance changes and “confusing” language which could result in a future court challenge and/or put the township in legal jeopardy should someone ever file a lawsuit in conjunction with the new township fire laws.
The fire departments’ legal experts, including Jeff Slugget of Bloom Slugget, PC, say they cannot decipher the township’s amendment language to the International Fire Code (IFC) and the cost recovery program, making both legally problematic.
“You know what I am going to do, right?” Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik recently told The Local Observer about the township’s changes.
“It doesn’t matter if I get reprimanded; you can put me in jail. But I am going to continue to serve the citizens of the district as they deserve and as I always have (even if it’s in violation of the new changes to the fire code),” said the township’s angry and perplexed fire chief.
Janik is just one of many local officials, firefighters, area residents and others who have repeatedly questioned Rudich’s and Sheridan’s and the other township offiicals’ motivations for making the changes to benefit developers.
Critics have repeatedly and publicly pointed out Rudich’s history of being “a control freak” and Sheridan’s “inability to provide any reasoned research, legal basis or honest analysis” for making the changes.
In several instances, fire department and Saugatuck and Douglas city officials say Sheridan was often caught “making up facts” and even “lying” to them and making false public statements about the then-proposed ordinance changes and language.
On August 2, the township voted 3-2 to amend the cost recovery policy. Saugatuck Township Clerk Rudich, Treasurer Lori Babinski and Trustee Doug Lane voted to approve the changes while Saugatuck Township Supervisor Jon Phillips and Trustee McIlwaine opposed the measure.
At the same meeting, the board approved amending the regulation of fire apparatus access on private roads and driveways serving four or fewer homes.
The fire department emphatically opposed both amendments. The changes also came despite objections by Douglas and Saugatuck cities’ officials, who supported leaving the IFC intact.
Fire officers are in the process of drafting an impact statement they will be presenting to the township board to address the department’s various grievances.
“As far as access roads and water supplies—by the township making the amendments they did—we have no authority,” said Janik about situations of downed power
lines and trees creating obstructions.
Janik further discussed dry hydrants and permanently installed pipes with low ends below the water level of a lake or pond.
“Back in Chief Blok’s time (John Blok, previous chief of the fire department for 35 years) water supply was required for every house constructed,” said Janik.
“We know that was very restrictive. We (the fire department) were asking for a water source for three or more houses, they (the township) wanted five or more. We reluctantly agreed,” said the fire chief.
Even with that, the township amended the code to include a provision that applies to the development of any parcel that, prior to August 2, 2017, was part of a parent parcel that has been subsequently divided into four “child parcels” pursuant to the Michigan Land Division Act, 1967 PA 288.
In other words, the department could very possibility be dealing with multiple homes in a parcel that previously only had one house and is treated as one house under the township’s new law. “These are fire problems waiting to happen,” said Janik.