Saugatuck Township Passes Controversial Fire Code Changes Over Many Officials' Protests
Notwithstanding vehement pleas from various sectors of the Tri-Community—including fire department officials, firefighters and the city managers and zoning administrators of the cities of Douglas and Saugatuck—the Saugatuck Township Board at Wednesday’s night meeting voted to eliminate parts of the long-time fire code and essentially block the fire department from effectively enforcing certain fire safety codes meant to protect residents and fire personnel alike.
The changes will only apply to the township, despite the fact that the township is one of three constituent municipal members of the Saugatuck Township Fire District (the others are Saugatuck and Douglas).
The township’s questionable decision to revamp the decades-old fire codes comes despite the fact all members of the district approved the International Fire Code—the national standard for fire prevention and safety adopted by local governments across the country.
Wednesday’s approval to change the fire codes and cost-recovery ordinance came in a 3-to-2 vote by the township board and left some township officials, the local fire chief and his staff and officials of the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas and some members of the public astonished and angry over what they say amounts to an unnecessary and potentially dangerous decision that puts the safety of township residents, business owners and tourists at risk.
Critics of the move say Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Township Manager Aaron Sheridan were the driving force behind the questionable move.
The pair secretly began rewriting the existing fire codes months ago without including or telling the fire department, fellow board members or even the city officials of Saugatuck and Douglas, despite the fact the two municipalities make up two-thirds of the local fire district.
Rudich’s and Sheridan’s actions have raised many questions as to why they secretly undertook to change the township ordinances, which includes putting the decision about fire safety measures for developers in the hands of the township zoning administrator - Steve Kushion - despite the fact Kushion has no fire training, no fire inspection certifications and no experience administering state-required fire regulations when it comes to dealing with developers.
Rudich and Sheridan’s only public explanation for why they decided to pursue these ordinance changes is that they got some complaints from developers that fire officials were costing them money by forcing them to adhere to the fire code requirements when it comes to installing certain fire safety equipment in new homes and businesses, forcing them to build larger driveways to allow fire vehicles needed access, etc.
“What the township has done is put the lives of my firefighters and the lives of the public in jeopardy,” warned local Fire Chief Greg Janik.
“And as I have said before, I will not allow the township to do that; my department will conduct our reviews and make our determinations with the public’s interest and safety as our main concern, regardless of what ridiculous and questionable ordinance they decide to pass for whatever reason.”
The new ordinance changes passed Wednesday night also impacts regulations related to the fire department’s efforts in recouping incurred costs for extraordinary cases of violations of the fire codes, what is referred to as cost recovery.
The township’s decision on that issue also now puts it at odds with its other fire district members (Saugatuck and Douglas), both of whose officials had their protests to leave the existing ordiances in place ignored by Rudich and Sheridan.
Several of those city officials, residents and fire officials and firefighters have questioned the reasons Rudich and Sheridan have given for making these changes. Several have called for investigations to find out whether there has been any potential illegal or improper activities that prompted their decision.
Strong resistance to the proposed changes also came from within the township board itself, including from Saugatuck Township Board Member Roy McIlwaine who publicly conceded to having “fallen asleep at the switch” regarding the concerns from the fire department and the other constituent members of the fire district, Saugatuck and Douglas.
“I admit that I did a 180 on this (cost recovery). If I was a taxpayer in Saugatuck or Douglas or the township, I would have concerns. If there is a cost recovery effort, it should be the same—it shouldn’t be us (the township) going off on our own,” said McIlwaine.
He and Township Supervisor Jonathan Phillips were the dissenting votes on one of the amendments, the code regulating fire prevention and protection. The other amendment regulating fire vehicle access on private roads and driveways was passed with a unanimous vote.
And although fire officials had compromised on some changes related to that latter proposal, they still had very strong misgivings and consistently voiced concerns that the township had made sudden and un expected changes to proposed verbal agreements and then township officials reneged on them.
“I am disappointed that the township has spent thousands of taxpayer dollars, to modify an ordinance (cost recovery), that less than one percent of the citizens they serve had issues with,” Saugatuck Township Fire District Deputy Chief Chris Mantels told the board before there vote.
“Will the township continue to buckle every time a few people gripe and re-write any ordinance just because of a few complaints?” Mantels’ asked.
According to Mantel’s research, there was a total of five builders or homeowners that complained about the International Fire Code (long used by the township) as being too stringent.
Repeatedly over the past several months, fire officials and Saugatuck and Douglas city leaders have voiced concerns over answers and information provided them by Township Manager Sheridan.
They said Sheridan routinely provided false and innacurate information about the existing fire code ordinances; misrepresented facts; acted inappropriately during meetings with those opposed to his views and answers; and couldn’t be trusted to share accurate research data on the topics related to the fire department and how other municipalities operated using the International Fire Codes.