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High-rise condo projects pose fire-protection dilemma

There is a dilemma about fire protection for high-rise condominiums in unincorporated Harrison County. High-rise structures five stories and taller are coming out of the ground, but Harrison County Fire Services has only a 24-foot ladder.

“In the unincorporated areas of Harrison County, we have a 24-foot ladder on our trucks, which would allow us to go up 20 feet in the air,” said George Mixon, chief, Harrison County Fire Services. “So, if you come in with a high-rise structure over 20 feet, how do you get out or how do we get in? When this first came up that they wanted to build five-story condominiums in the unincorporated area of Harrison County, I told the planning commission director that I could not provide fire protection for these buildings. I told him, ‘We can’t get there.’”

The county’s response has been to come up with a developer agreement that would require developers of high-rise condos outside of incorporated cities to pay $3,000 per unit into a fund to help pay for fire protection as well as police protection and recreational services. The county has passed a first reading of the ordinance.

But Mixon still has concerns. He said after reading the agreement, “You need to take the part that is south of the L&N railroad tracks and throw it away. There is only one part of unincorporated area of Harrison County south of tracks and that is Henderson Point.

“In no way, shape or form do I recommend building south of the tracks at Henderson Point,” Mixon said. “That area got 34 feet of water and all houses in that fire district were totally destroyed. The same area, Henderson Point, in 1969 with Hurricane Camille had 24 feet of water. We don’t need to be building back there. We have no fire trucks down there. We have no fire fighters down there. There is no fire station down there. The nearest fire station county-wide is about five miles away.”

The trouble is, scenic Henderson Point overlooking the Bay of St. Louis is exactly where the condominiums are planned. One condo is under construction, two that were destroyed in the storm are planning to rebuild, and at least two others higher than 35 feet are anticipated in the next couple of years. About 550 condo units are planned in the area.

Mixon said, according to the Mississippi Rating Bureau which sets the fire ratings that determine insurance rates are, if you have four or five buildings three stories or taller in a fire district, you need an aerial truck.

“The cost of that truck is anywhere from $700,000 to a million dollars,” Mixon said. “That is just a truck. It doesn’t count personnel to run it or a fire station.”

Mixon fears not enough money would be collected to pay for the increased fire protection services even if the “developer’s agreement” isn’t challenged as an illegal tax. Ocean Springs and other cities that have attempted to charge impact fees for new development have been challenged by the Homebuilders Association of Mississippi (HBAM), which successfully won a court challenge to the impact fees imposed by Ocean Springs.

Harrison County has said the developer’s agreement is voluntary. But Marty Milstead, executive vice president of HBAM, said from what he has heard about the ordinance, it sounds like a tax.

“And we already know what the courts have decided about that,” Milstead said. “If a developer has to sign this agreement to get a building permit approved, that is not voluntary. Ocean Springs said it was voluntary, but home builders didn’t get a building permit if they didn’t do it. If it is that kind of voluntary, then it could be challenged.”

Milstead said he thought developers would have a problem with building in an area without adequate fire protection for high-rise buildings from the point of view of insurance and liability.

“If you are trying to sell some space, a condo or whatever, that the fire department might not be able to accommodate, obviously it becomes a marketing issue, I would think,” Milstead said. “Of course, they probably have sprinkler systems and different ways to address that.”

Milstead said he hadn’t had the opportunity to look at the details of the proposed developer’s agreement, but that he is sure the planning department thinks it is a good idea or it wouldn’t have recommended it.

Mixon has concerns that even if the developer agreement fees go forward, they won’t be enough money to buy an aerial truck and pay for the other upgrades needed.

“If not, what do you do?” he asks. “Do you go to the taxpayers and say, ‘Make up the difference?’ My understanding is that they wouldn’t purchase the truck or equipment until they had the money to do so. The other alternative is if someone objects to the fees and says, ‘You can’t do this,’ then the only choice would be that everybody in that community would pay higher insurance costs because of this project. No one would get lower insurance rates or taxpayers would have to pay to buy the specialized equipment to protect this building or these buildings so everybody could get lower insurance.”

Mixon said developers of projects in other unincorporated parts of the county have asked about building high-rise structures. He said he told them the same thing applies to their project as those proposed for Henderson Point: the county doesn’t have specialized aerial equipment and doesn’t have the personnel to adequately serve the high-rise developments.

“If I had a wish, I wish the business community would talk with the fire protection people either before or at the same time they talk to the planning people so that we can explain openly and fairly to them: this is what services we can provide to you who are proposing to build this $1-million project so it is not a surprise to both of us’,” Mixon said. “We need water, fire hydrants, fire equipment and fire personnel. If we could take and get all of this stuff together in a plan, then together we can work wonders. But when they come in and say, ‘We are going to do this development’, I’m concerned with life safety.”

Developers of the projects reportedly have not objected to the fees, which could be counteracted by lower rates for fire insurance.

“Customers’ insurance rates would be considerably lower with a good fire fighting system,” a county official said. “Currently the fire rating for the area is a 10, so whatever could be done to lower that would be good. Funds are dedicated to the district the project is in. It is area specific. Fees for condos in Henderson Point won’t be for fire fighting services in another part of the county.”

The county official said that the planning department is trying to be proactive and allow the development projects, but they don’t know how it is going to work out.

“We have a problem,” he said. “These buildings are causing a problem for everyone. So far the developer’s agreement has been relatively well received, but no one has paid yet either.”

A first reading of the developer agreements was approved by the Harrison County Board of Supervisors January 8. Modifications were made, and a second reading was scheduled as this issue of the Mississippi Business Journal went to press last week.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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