Fire code update with county growth policy may spark a firestorm

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The dreaded “Z” word (zoning) could turn into the dreaded “F” word (fire) if county officials update regulations to adopt the International Fire Code.

The Beaverhead County Planning Board is in the midst of recommending updates to the county’s growth policy and its subdivision regulations, which must be approved by the county commissioners. One of the biggest frustrations for county officials is the inability to hold developers responsible for complying with approved subdivision rules, which then leads to negatively impacting their neighbors in several ways.

One of the ways county Sanitarian Tom Wagenknecht suggested fixing the problem is instituting a building permit process, listing specific approvals that need to be obtained before construction begins. That process, however, raises the specter of zoning, which can be anathema to landowners in Beaverhead County.

But Dillon Fire Chief BJ Klose told the Beaverhead County Planning Board there might be a way to get the same effect without using zoning, specifically by adopting the International Fire Code. Combining that with a code enforcement officer – something the city of Dillon and county do not have – might ensure that public safety concerns for developments are addressed before concrete is poured.

“One thing with the International Fire Code, if the fire district and the county adopt that at some point in the future, I can see the county and city going in halves on a building inspector,” Klose said.

“I know, this is Dillon, Montana, it’s a small town, it’s this or it’s that. But unless we get ahead of it, we’re going to be way behind,” he added. “I know we’re a good-old-boys club in Dillon, but it’s time we stepped up and did it right.”

Klose told the planning board July 21 that the city is considering adopting the most recent fire code, in line with the state of Montana. The IFC includes regulations to ensure the safety of life and property from fires and explosions; it outlines general precautions, emergency planning and preparedness; ensures fire department access and water supplies; requires automatic sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, and the storage and use of hazardous materials.

Zoning overall has become a focus in light of past subdivision approvals with requirements that the developers did not comply with, battles over road access, extra entrances and exits for large developments, wrongly-placed septic systems and well drilling, and the possibility of legal fights to come over them.

Klose spoke of existing fire protection options with the current regulations. That included requiring emergency access to subdivisions, and a reliable source of water for fires, such as a nearby hydrant, well or cistern for fire usage. He noted cisterns are not reliable unless they are set up a specific way, and wells that were drilled for the purpose years ago may no longer work if the water table has dropped. Fire District #2 does have a “Water on Wheels” program, but there is no guarantee that the water they bring with them to a farflung location will be enough to douse a structure fire, especially if the property is a long distance from Dillon.

Klose suggested the planning board consider including the IFC in its updated subdivision regulations, which are still in the beginning phases of revision. Controversial items like zoning have to be mentioned in the county’s growth policy before they can be placed in those regulations, something the updated growth policy may include.

Wagenknecht reminded the board the updated growth policy is still working through drafting, and would require public hearings before the county commissioners could adopt it. The subdivision regulation revision discussion is barely off the ground, and it would be quite some time to move toward what Klose is suggesting.

“In order to adopt building codes, we have to go through the process of doing our county growth policy, recognizing that the public has a chance to comment. This is just to reiterate – this is the first step to take, to get to – hopefully someday – what BJ is talking about,” he said.

“BJ is saying by adopting the International Fire Code, we could actually put a building inspector on running that code, rather than set up zoning. This might be a different avenue than zoning,” planning board member Kelly Rowe said.

Planning Board Chairman Larry Volkening reminded the group that even if the planning board recommended these changes, the commissioners have to then approve them. They are not the final say on the matter.

“We don’t really know where we’ll be in six months, but we’ve got to get this conversation started,” he said.