When the Oliver T. Carr Co. sought permission from the District of Columbia government two weeks ago to close an alley near 18th and I streets NW as part of plans to build a 10-story office building, the fire department insisted that the developer install a costly automatic sprinkler system as a safety measure.

But when developer Jeffrey N. Cohen and the Trammell Crow Co. asked this week that another alley be closed near 14th and I streets NW to aid in the construction of a major office and retail complex, fire officials said that no sprinkler system was needed -- a decision that will save an estimated $300,000 in costs.

City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, responding to complaints from Carr officials, charged yesterday that the Barry administration has been arbitrary in determining which new buildings require sprinkler systems. Clarke said he is drafting a bill that would set strict standards for making that determination.

"Don't you think we ought to be a little more clear?" Clarke asked a D.C. fire official during a council hearing yesterday into the alley closing request of Cohen and Trammell Crow. "Don't you think that with the lack of standards, some [developers] have the luck of the draw and others don't?"

Battalion Fire Chief J.A. Quander Jr., whose office reviews requests before the City Council for alley closings, told Clarke that he did not know why Cohen and Trammell Crow are not being required to install a sprinkler system, but that he would find out. "I did not sign off on it," he said.

Clarke asked that Quander also submit any evidence that the fire department follows written standards in assessing the potential fire hazards of alley closings. Clarke said he supsected that fire officials were basing their decisions largely on their "experienced impressions."

Under current D.C. regulations, the owners or developers of commercial property are not required to install sprinkler systems with few exceptions -- such as when a building contains a large atrium of two or more stories.

However, developers may be required to install a sprinkler system as a condition for the District's agreeing to close an adjacent alley, if the fire department concludes that closing the alley would make it difficult for fire trucks and equipment to reach the building in the event of a fire.

Cohen and Trammell Crow are partners in a $50 million project to convert the old Parkside Hotel and other property bounded by 13th, 14th, H and I streets NW to new office space.

Cohen told Clarke that his partnership would be willing to install a sprinkler system if the City Council insisted, or adopted regulations requiring it.