The Howard County Council will consider legislation in January that would give owners of Ellicott City's historic buildings tax credits for installing sprinkler systems in the hope of preventing fires similar to one that destroyed or damaged six downtown structures this month.
Most of the buildings involved in the Nov. 9 blaze did not have sprinklers because older structures are exempt from the county law that requires them. County officials had assumed that only the state legislature could grant tax credits for sprinklers, but they learned this week that local governments were given that power after a similar fire in downtown Annapolis two years ago.
In the aftermath of the Ellicott City fire, some residents and county officials have demanded that every owner of a Main Street building be forced to install sprinklers. But the city's representative on the County Council, Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County), said a gradual and voluntary approach, such as offering tax credits, was more appropriate.
"Installing sprinklers costs quite a bit," Merdon said. "It could be hard on many of these businesses. I think we should ask them to do it the next time they decide to renovate."
Merdon's proposal states that each year for five years, a building owner could reduce property taxes by 10 percent of the cost of installing a sprinkler system. Ultimately, owners would recoup half the cost. Even more of the cost would be offset by reduced fire insurance premiums, which usually follow safety upgrades.
Several council members have warmed to Merdon's proposal, and it should pass easily, Merdon said. He is waiting until the January legislative session to introduce the proposal to make sure first that downtown buildings can be fitted with sprinklers.
James M. Irvin, the county director of public works, said the downtown's water system has the capacity to accommodate sprinklers in every Main Street store. "There is plenty of water to supply sprinklers. It won't be a problem," he said.
There is no evidence that sprinkler systems would have prevented the six-alarm fire, fire officials have said. The state fire marshal's office concluded that the cause was a cigarette discarded by a teenager in the trash area behind the Main Street Blues club. The trash ignited, and the fire spread to adjacent buildings, causing $2 million in damages.
But the fire marshal's investigators said sprinklers might have minimized damage, and they recommended that all Main Street stores be fitted with them. "These kinds of things are going to happen again whether we want to admit it or not," said County Executive James N. Robey (D). "We need to do everything that's reasonable to decrease the chances, and that includes sprinklers."
State lawmakers granted counties the authority to issue tax credits to owners of historic buildings after an electrical fire destroyed a century-old building in the middle of Annapolis's historic downtown district in 1997.