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

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."