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Issue of Fire Sprinklers Heating Up : Housing: Condo owners risk jail time for challenging a law mandating that buildings be retrofitted with the safety devices. Cost could be from $10,000 to $20,000 per unit.


GLENDALE — Charging that they have become political scapegoats, residents of a luxury high-rise condominium tower are challenging Glendale's 4-year-old law on fire sprinklers.

Homeowners in the 51-unit, 11-story Verdugo Towers at 1155 N. Brand Blvd. have been given until July 22 to begin installing the sprinklers, or face criminal penalties and possible jail terms.

The law, passed in 1989, requires retrofitting fire sprinklers in existing structures. Within the next two years, fire sprinklers will be required in all buildings four stories high and taller.

Despite owners' arguments that the expensive safety measure is not necessary in their fire-resistant concrete and steel structure, the city Building Commission last week rejected an appeal for an exemption.

Owners charge that they have been unfairly and unreasonably singled out for enforcement of the law. Their high rise, built in 1965, is the first residential building affected by the 1989 city law.

Although failure to comply with the law can result in each homeowner facing penalties of up to $1,000 and six months in jail for every day of violation, city officials said they are not seriously considering immediately enforcing the penalties.

"It is purely a political issue," said Scott Alberts, secretary of the Verdugo Towers Homeowners Assn., which is appealing this week to the City Council for reconsideration. "They have an ordinance on the books that is not fair, not reasonable."

He said the majority of building residents are elderly and living on fixed incomes and cannot afford the added cost, estimated at $10,000 to $20,000 per unit. City officials said they are looking for ways to help finance the project, but have no solution yet.

The council is expected within a few weeks to decide whether it will hear the homeowners' appeal, the first to challenge the 4-year-old law.

The ordinance is one of the strictest in the nation. Its retroactive clause affects all low-, medium- and high-rise structures built before 1974, when the city began requiring sprinklers in all construction over three stories high. The latest ordinance now also requires sprinklers in all construction, including single-family homes.

Most cities, including Los Angeles and Pasadena, have exempted existing condominiums from complying with new universal fire-sprinkler laws because of the expense to homeowners.

But Glendale's retroactive ordinance affects all older buildings--including commercial offices, condominiums and apartments. Twenty-nine structures are affected by the retroactive clause, 10 of which have been brought into compliance, said David Woods, assistant fire marshal.

Existing buildings under four stories, including single-family homes in areas of high fire risk, were exempted from the law because the City Council, in adopting the ordinance, recognized the financial hardship on owners. The council also wrote in a provision for granting exemptions when "installation and maintenance of sprinklers would be dangerous to life," or when "other fire-extinguishing systems to protect special hazards or occupancies" are approved.

Verdugo Towers residents earlier this year applied for an exemption because, they said, sprinkler installation would require the costly removal of asbestos from throughout the building--a dangerous process that would require residents to move out of their homes for months while the work is done.

Besides, they argued, the building is well-protected from the spread of fire. Each of the units is encapsulated in concrete and steel; standpipes, fire hoses and alarms are on each floor; a master alarm system monitors the building; every unit has a balcony or terrace to the outside, with a water spigot; and a city fire station is next to the tower.

But Glendale Fire Department officials have steadfastly countered that all those measures require human intervention to fight fire. They maintain that there is no substitute for sprinklers.

At a meeting with condominium owners Monday, Fire Marshall Michael Carter again told residents that the department will not accept any arguments for an exemption.

Verdugo Towers owners charge that their plight is being used by the city to set an example of strict enforcement.

"Their mind is made up, and no amount of logic or reason is going to change their mind," said Alberts, the association secretary. "They have the ability to exempt us, but they are sticking to their guns."

One condominium owner already is suing the city, and others are threatening separate legal action.

Douglas Morrow, 80, who owns a tower penthouse, is challenging the constitutional legality of the law in a suit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

"Most of us believe that we have been willfully and consistently deceived by the Fire Department," said Morrow, who accuses city officials of being "mean-spirited and petty" in their refusal to grant an exemption. "These people are attempting to control our lives. I am not going to give in."

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