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

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."

He suggested that they collaborate with their town's fire safety officials to come up with a list of potential changes to the code before submitting to the board of appeals. In some cases involving old buildings with "structural hardships," compromises could be made if extra safety precautions are taken.

"The key element of going before the board of appeal and review is to have a consensus and agreement between you and your local authority," he said. "As long as you are citing the code and citing it correctly, they're going to try and help you."

The Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review is comprised of 11 members made up of building officials, architects and paid and volunteer fire chiefs.

"You've got a good cross section of people from different perspectives who sit on that board," DiMascolo said. "It's not weighted on one side or the other."

But safety is paramount.

The board will take a case and review it, so they typically do not render an on-the-spot decision, he said. In some instances, the board will make a site visit to clarify any unanswered questions from a hearing.

Stephanie and David Osborn co-own Sugar Loaf Hill B&B on Main Street in Wakefield. They offer three guest rooms and are considering expanding their business pending the outcome of a hearing with the review board and associated construction costs.

"There are so many variables in interpretations of the law and it's causing great confusion," Stephanie Osborn said.

But worst of all, closure of B&Bs that can't afford the necessary changes to get up to code translates to a reduction in tourism, Osborn said, fearing that local restaurants, festivals and even beach revenues will all take a hit.

"In the long run the state's going to lose," she said. "We're small ambassadors who introduce people to town."

Peter Gardiner, director of marketing for the South County Tourism Council, agrees.

There are currently 47 B&Bs in South County and "that number is rapidly changing because several are on the market," Gardiner said.

The 47 B&Bs account for about 100 guest rooms.

"That's 200 people who wouldn't be here in South County. I would hate to see any of them close," he said.

Grand View B&B in Westerly, considered large with nine guest rooms, has been in business for 19 seasons. Owner Pat Grande has seen a number of changes in the industry over the years, including a new ordinance she helped establish in Westerly that limits B&Bs to six guest rooms. Her business was grandfathered in under the new regulation.

With her years of experience, Grande doesn't consider B&Bs a "threatening business" that will compete with the hospitality industry.

"If 20 B&Bs go out of business, you can replace those 40 or 50 rooms with a small hotel, but you lose the ambience of these mini-chambers of commerce," she said. "We all want everything that is best for safety, but we want to make sure the little guys still exist."

Grande added a sprinkler system to the third floor of her home before the code became a requirement.

"I knew it was coming [after the Station fire] and I was comfortable doing it," she said.

Her place has been on the market for the past month. But Grande's decision to sell is not related to the fire code changes.

"I just decided it's time to scale down," she said. "We all use different kinds of accommodation depending on our needs. You can't beat a B&B for learning about the area. It's like having your own private tour guide."

Ellen Madison, owner of Woody Hill B&B, worked with Grande on establishing Westerly's ordinance. A veteran of the industry who has been in business since 1973, Grande is not too worried about the fire code changes as they apply to her Westerly B&B.

"They have been very receptive," she said. "They are searching for ways to help us maintain and increase safety without bankrupting us and forcing us out of business."

Over the years, Madison, who puts on a special Thanksgiving spread, has enjoyed getting to know guests who have visited her home from around the world.

Her favorite part of owning a B&B?

"The people," she said. "That's what I'd miss if I went out of business."