State legislators seek fire code exemption for small vendors at local fairs

 

By ANITA FRITZ
Recorder Staff
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
(Published in print: Thursday, September 17, 2015)

GREENFIELD — State legislators say they are worried that Greenfield’s strict enforcement of a state fire code could end up costing the county.

Three state representatives from Franklin County said they plan to meet with the state fire marshal to discuss a fire code that could shut down small local food vendors who spend four days a year at the Franklin County Fair.

“This may not only mean an inconvenience and heavy cost to small-town local vendors to sell their food just a few days a year, but it could cost the town tourism dollars,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, whose district includes Greenfield. “We certainly want people to be safe, but this seems excessive.”

Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan recently informed vendors that by next year’s fair many of them will have to install hoods and fire suppression systems if they are going to fry foods in deep fryers or cook on grills in their buildings, and that could cost some vendors $5,000 or more.

Because of that announcement, some vendors like local churches and service clubs like the Bernardston Kiwanis, said they might not return to the fair next year. Some said they only make $1,500 to $2,000 at the fair each year, so it would take too many years to cover the cost of installation.

Strahan said he plans to work closely with all vendors to make the transition as painless, seamless and inexpensive as possible.

Mark said the local fair is known for its local fare, so he would not want to see it turn into a carnival of all out-of-town vendors.

“I want to sit with the fire marshal and see if an exemption for events like this can be carved out,” said Mark. “I don’t want to see local vendors leave local fairs.”

Mark said he will start by setting up a meeting with state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan.

“Ideally, we’ll be able to come up with something together,” he said. “Otherwise, I think it would be worth filing a bill.”

Mark said such an extreme code might make sense in other parts of the state, but not in Franklin County, where annual small-town fairs last just a few days at most.

“Enforcement of this code will cause unanticipated harm here,” he said.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, agreed.

“I’ve talked with Paul and agree we need to sit and talk with the state fire marshal,” said Kulik. “I’m not sure a statutory remedy is the way to go, though. I think we have to explore other avenues first.”

Kulik said he will ask that the fire marshal show some flexibility to local vendors without compromising fire safety.

“What we don’t want to do is put small vendors out of business,” he said.

Kulik said he is in the “info-gathering stage,” so won’t have any answers right away.

“I don’t know the solution,” he said. “We’ll take it as far as we can, though.”

Both Mark and Kulik said they have not yet been contacted by any local fairs or their vendors about the issue, but expect that’s coming.

“We will be contacting them to get their thoughts and input,” said Kulik. “Then, we’ll take those to the fire marshal.”

Rep. Susannah Whipps Lee, R-Orange, said she believes it’s prudent for the three to talk with the fire marshal.

“I worked in the catering business for many years and did a lot of outdoor fairs and other events,” said Whipps Lee. “There are great spots for great events in our district, but this could make holding them a problem.”

Whipps Lee said she will join Mark and Kulik in discussions with the state fire marshal.

“These events get more people to our area,” she said. “Do we really want to stop that from happening? We need to find a creative solution. We want to attract people here.”

Whipps Lee said it is not cost-effective to require small vendors to install hoods and fire suppression systems in buildings that they only use four days a year, especially when the fire department is nearby at all times and the buildings are equipped with fire extinguishers.

“I think there’s a difference between a permanent structure that’s used all year and a permanent structure used on a temporary basis,” she said.

Whipps Lee said she understands fire safety, but thinks the state code is taking it too far by not allowing certain exemptions.

“I’m against regulating businesses out of business,” she said. “I’m hopeful that the state fire marshal will work with us.”

Sen. President Stanley Rosenberg, whose district includes Greenfield, said he will work with Mark, Kulik and Whipps Lee to find some sort of resolution. He said he looks forward to speaking with the state fire marshal.