Dewey town hall plans hit a snag

Fire lane requirements threaten proposal
April 23, 2024

Plans for the proposed Dewey Beach Town Hall, police department and EMS station have hit a snag.

At an April 12 commissioners meeting, GMB architect Morgan Helfrich detailed a series of meetings and conversations with representatives of the state fire marshal office, in which a 25% fire lane and 50% perimeter access were established based on the proposed three-story structure planned for business occupancy and correctional functions.

In October 2023, Helfrich said the town entered negotiations with Delmarva Power & Light on the cost to bury the overhead power lines along the portion of Coastal Highway that would front the new facility’s main entrance. They determined the cost was prohibitive. 

Town Manager Bill Zolper said the estimates provided were $1 million to bury the lines and another $150,000 to move a large utility pole in front of the proposed main entrance.

In December, Helfrich said she met with fire marshal office representatives to discuss the building design and sign using Coastal Highway for the bulk of the 25% fire lane access. The fire marshal didn’t object to the plan, Helfrich said, so she continued with planning.

Helfrich said she submitted the site plan to the fire marshal’s office Jan. 26, and they returned it with comments Feb. 8. The same day, she said she received a phone call from Duane Fox of the fire marshal’s office, who said they wouldn’t allow a fire lane on Coastal Highway because of the high-tension electric wires running across the property. She said she then met with the town and fire marshal to discuss a path forward.

A portion of the Delaware state fire requirements says if there is an unobstructed height of 13-feet-6-inches from any obstruction, the fire lane access should be acceptable, Helfrich said, but it is up to fire marshal’s discretion, and Fox said it is not acceptable.

“So, we are stuck with a design that basically does not have 25% fire lane access because we were planning on using Route 1,” Helfrich said. “We believed we did our due diligence to make sure that was acceptable before we submitted the design.”

Helfrich said she spoke with Fox about submitting an alternate method of approval that shows the project includes items that go above and beyond code in other aspects to mitigate the lack of fire lane percentage since the fire lane will not be permitted on Coastal Highway.

Such items that increase the life safety of the building include measures already in place – including noncombustible construction and fire rating increases – to see if the mitigations are acceptable. Helfrich said she didn’t think the alternates would be easily rejected, as 16% of the fire lane access is present now.

Dewey Beach Mayor Bill Stevens said he was very disappointed, calling the lack of consideration for the power lines a complete miss.

“What are we going to do if the fire marshal comes back and says we can’t have town hall where we thought it was going to be?” he asked. “So what’s our backup plan?”

Helfrich said she discussed backup plans but most contingencies are items she doesn’t think the town wants to consider, such as removing part of the third floor or eliminating the EMS station altogether, since the fire marshal’s biggest concern involves safety of the personnel sleeping in the building.

GMB did not have the EMS station as a portion of the design until later, Helfrich said, but it doesn’t change the current situation.

Zolper said they discussed removing the sally port and EMS station, but they really want the EMS station to be part of town hall because it’s a safety issue. EMS stations have two bunk rooms, one male and one female, he said, because certain shifts require sleep time. Zolper said he talked to EMS officials about removing the bunk rooms and was told all their buildings have it and want it maintained.

The fire lane depth must be 24 feet wide, Helfrich said, so even if plans extended to the north property line, a separate building would not be feasible. The area would be too small and fire access for a truck to get to the north property line would still be needed. A complete redesign would be called for in such an instance, she said. 

Right now, Zolper said, the town is waiting for the fire marshal to review the alternative plans; the town will have the opportunity to appeal a decision.

The town owns two lots on Coastal Highway where the code enforcement building and parking lot are located, and the lot on Rodney Avenue where the current town hall and police department sit.

The proposed two-phase construction project would first include demolition of the code enforcement building so the new town hall and police department can be built in its place. Once employees are moved into the new facility, the current town hall and police department would be demolished to make way for construction of a sally port and EMS station.


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