Tragedy struck Denton in the wee hours of Wednesday morning Dec. 27 when an inferno erupted in the Downtown Mini Mall on the Square, burning out the shop and damaging neighboring buildings, including the iconic Courthouse on the Square museum. The Mini Mall had no sprinkler system in place, and neither do many of the buildings in Old Town, leaving Lewisville’s downtown area vulnerable to the same damage.
City Council has wanted to put sprinklers in place for years now and is willing to pay to do it, but has encountered several obstacles. Among them is at least one building owner that doesn’t want sprinklers installed.
In a special City Council session April 10, 2017 in which several plans for Old Town were discussed, fire chief Tim Tittle and fire marshal Tim Ippolito went over the fire risks the downtown area faces.
Tittle said that from a tactical fire fighting perspective, the area is vulnerable because the buildings are stacked one right next to the other. In a realistic situation where the firefighters don’t know how long the building had been burning or where the fire started when they arrive on scene, Tittle said they wouldn’t want anyone to enter the building, and they won’t be able to get too close to the front or back either because those are the directions the building might collapse.
“We all know we can replace buildings, but we can’t replace people, so I’ll tell you, and I’ve even said this to the business owners in Old Town in another meeting, we’re not going to do that,” Tittle said. “Our only options would be to go to the buildings on either side … and basically write off the building that’s affected. And depending on the extent of the fire, we may have to go two businesses down, and if we do that, basically, we’re writing off three businesses.”
Tittle said sprinkler systems and accompanying smoke detectors greatly reduce the risk of a small fire becoming a large one by alerting the fire department early and simply dumping water on it if it gets too big.
Ippolito said that the council had budgeted $869,360 for putting sprinkler systems into the historic buildings in Old Town, $41,900 of which had already been spent on an engineering design, but that one building owner was refusing to allow the installation.
A public purpose must be served in order to use public funds for the project — otherwise, they’re just using taxpayer money to improve private businesses — so in order to legally use that money, every business owner needs to be on board. Also, installing the sprinklers building by building would simply be more expensive, city councilperson TJ Gilmore said a day after the Mini Mall fire.
“If the public good is to protect a heritage location, then allowing one to opt out defeats the purpose of the use of public funds,” Gilmore said. “If it is done piecemeal then creation and maintenance becomes much more expensive. For example- if every other building was part of the program, then we would need a higher pressure water connection (riser) for each building, instead of a single riser that supplies to all. Opting out also creates a situation where we can’t maintain something that we put in, again defeating the purpose.
Both Ippolito and Gilmore declined to say which business owner is refusing to allow the installation. However, Gilmore said that the Mini Mall fire increases the urgency of this project and the city can adopt an ordinance that requires the businesses to have sprinkler systems in place, but they don’t want to go that route.
“Doing this by ordinance creates more opportunities for litigation as opposed to coming to a contractual agreement between the city and the businesses,” he said. “All it takes is one careless cigarette from a bystander, a spark from renovation work, or even old electrical wiring failures to have a calamity on our hands.”
Ippolito said that staff will be requesting such an ordinance at the next City Council meeting Jan. 8. Mayor Rudy Durham and city council members’ contact information is here. Meetings are at 7 p.m. in City Hall, 151 W. Church St. in Lewisville.