Column: Lebanon Planning Board Makes Up the Rules

Thursday, February 11, 2016
Tuesday’s Valley News editorial showed the same lack of research and understanding about fire safety and sprinklers shown by the Lebanon Planning Board at its Monday night hearing on the River Valley Club’s child care center application.

The fact that national fire codes — the result of extensive hearings, expert testimony and historical analysis — do not require sprinklers on the ground floor of child care facilities should have decided the issue (sprinklers are required by code for child care centers located in basements and on the second floor and above). Informed opinion by recognized authorities is always a better basis for judgment in technical matters than the unthought-out, emotional opinions of untrained citizens and newspaper editors.

But beyond the nation’s building codes, at RVC we did our own research on sprinklers. We telephoned 100 New Hampshire child care centers to ask about their experiences with fire safety. Seventy centers had sprinklers; 30 did not (including one in Lebanon and one in Norwich). Of the 70 centers with sprinklers, not one had had its sprinklers activated in the last decade. Not one.

More importantly, we designed our single-story center from the ground up with fire safety in mind. Each of our 12 classrooms is approximately 38-by-18 feet, each has doors to the outside at each end, and all have at least one side door to an adjoining classroom. In simpler terms, our skilled child care providers (who perform fire drills on a regular basis) are no more than 18 feet (about 10 steps) from an exit door. Contrast that with your own home — my children’s bedrooms are 75 feet and up one flight of stairs from the nearest exit; the law does not require us to have sprinklers, and we don’t.

Modern structures built to the specifications of the national fire codes — with fire-rated walls, protected electrical installations, carefully designed heating and cooling systems and modern lighting — are one of our nation’s achievements. It is almost impossible for them to catch on fire. The national building codes about sprinklers reflect that fact.

The Lebanon Planning Board is held in disdain by most people who build in the Upper Valley. The board makes construction inordinately difficult, expensive and time-consuming. It has increased costs for everyone, and has driven away from our community companies who are unwilling to waste money on unnecessary construction. They leave not because the board enforces the rules, but because it makes rules up as it goes along. Imagine a police officer who ticketed you for going 65 mph on the interstate in a 65 mph zone — because he personally thought that 50 mph was a safer speed. You get the picture.

In America we deserve to be able to follow written laws that are drafted by professionals and enacted by elected governments, and not be at the mercy of capricious and uninformed citizen boards, no matter how well meaning.

Joe Asch is owner of the River Valley Club in Lebanon.