Rhode Island B&B Owners Group Together to Challenge New Fire Code Restrictions

Owners say new restrictions would be too costly to implement, could drive them out of business

RHODE ISLAND - Fearing construction bills in the tens of thousands of dollars to install new sprinkler and fire alarm systems required by the state fire code, local bed and breakfast owners are teaming up to change the regulations.

Since the state adopted new fire safety regulations following The Station nightclub fire in February 2001, many owners of restaurants, businesses and apartment buildings have been scrambling to implement changes by the July 1, 2005 deadline.

"It's a big jump and it's a lot more stringent," said Joanne Robinson of King Tom Farm B&B in Charlestown, but one of the positives is that "the code is more fair and equitable statewide."

On Monday, B&B owners met to go over a petition they hope will more clearly define a B&B as a private home with guest rooms, which would lessen the safety requirements called for in the regulations.

"We're asking all B&B owners to sign this petition that we're going to send to the state legislature and the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review," Robinson said. "We can't change the fire code, but hopefully we can change the definition as it pertains to private dwellings."

About 30 of South County's 47 B&B owners met in October to discuss the changes.

Robinson runs King Tom Farm with her husband Matthew and her mother Mary Anne Bruce, who irons the pillow cases. They have been in business for the past four years.

Robinson called the adoption of the fire code a "knee jerk" reaction to a tragedy that should not have occurred if The Station nightclub had been properly sprinklered and alarmed.

"We all pay the price now for more stringent fire safety," she said. "As much as I don't want to pay to update my fire system, it is necessary."

According to the fire code, any building that accommodates more than three guests but less than 16 is considered a rooming house.

Any building occupied by 16 or more guests is classified as a commercial operation, like a hotel or motel, which is accompanied by additional regulations.

Most Rhode Island B&Bs fall under the definition of a rooming house, Robinson said, which requires a sprinkler and fire alarm system. A sprinkler system for a small B&B could cost $25,000 or more, depending on the size of the home.

"That's a big cost for the owner of a home with room for only four guests. You'll never make that up in income," Robinson said.

Under the definition of a rooming house in the fire code, private dwellings are the exception. The common denominator that links all B&Bs is that they are owner-occupied.

"That puts us in an entirely different light than a rooming house or a hotel or a motel," Robinson said.

While the details of the B&B owners petition were slated to be worked out Monday, Robinson said they were thinking of defining a B&B as a home accommodating eight or fewer guests with no more than four guest rooms.

"We can stretch the law and not be unreasonable in our request," she said. "You want the place you go to sleep in to be in safe and I would hate the thought of someone thinking my establishment was a fire trap."

Robinson is selling her Charlestown business, not because of the new regulations, but to move to the north end of the state where she will open another, smaller B&B.

She is continuing to pursue improvements because "we will still be governed by the same rules when we move."

The code is enforced and interpreted by the state fire marshal's office. Any questions officials might have regarding the regulations are typically directed to the Fire Code Board of Appeal and Review, said State Fire Marshal Michael DiMascolo.

DiMascolo met with the group of concerned B&B owners to go over the regulations.

"Do you really need a sophisticated fire alarm system in a three-bedroom Cape?" he said by way of example. "These are the issues we need to look at."

This content continues onto the next page...