Historic Building Owners Might Get Help with Fire Sprinkler Installation

Woodstock Fire Chief L.D. Sutherland, Jr. has been literally jumping up and down for years about making sure all of downtown Woodstock’s historic buildings are adequately sprinkled. The fear is that one small fire might quickly spread and “take down” the entire downtown district. Unfortunately, in such a situation, safety of firefighters would come first, meaning buildings might have to be left to burn rather than leave volunteers in a warren of stairwells and back hallways. Now, some potential help in sight for building owners who might get tax credits for installing sprinkler systems. It’s in a bill proposed by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy: 

Leahy Introduces Bill Aimed At Reducing Downtown Building Fires

…Initiative Modeled On Vermont Downtown Tax Credit

August 9, 2013

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. – Standing on the same block that had been stricken with two fires since 2000, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy Friday  told members of the St. Johnsbury community that he had introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to help prevent further tragedy.  The legislation, inspired by the community’s struggle with three major downtown fires, would incentivize the installation of fire sprinklers and elevators in downtown historic buildings.

Leahy’s bill, the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act, creates up to a $50,000 refundable federal tax credit for building owners who install either fire sprinklers or elevators in historic multi-use buildings located in historic downtowns.

“Since 2000, the federal government has invested more than $30 million into rebuilding burned down buildings in St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, Hardwick, Enosburg, Springfield, and Wilmington,” said Leahy. “If the sprinkler and elevator credit I propose today had existed then, perhaps the federal government could have saved $29.5 million, the three souls we lost in St. Johnsbury might still be with us, and organizations like Housing Vermont and Rural Edge could focus on building new housing capacity instead of replacing old housing capacity.”

“After the Daniels Block fire devastated Main Street in 2000, RuralEdge successfully turned that catastrophe into a piece of redevelopment on Main Street,” said RuralEdge CEO Merten Bangemann-Johnson. “As responsible community developers, we had to step in, or the site could look exactly like the spot on Main Street that remains vacant after the 2009 fire.  But rebuilding after a fire is expensive and takes a lot of time. Upfront investments that preserve our original downtown buildings ensure their productive use and make for the best use of tax payer dollars.”

Vermont’s Downtown Tax Credit program competitively awards tax credits to owners of historic buildings in Vermont’s designated downtowns for rehabilitation work, including the installation of sprinklers and elevators.  In late July, Governor Peter Shumlin announced nearly $2 million in these credits, including for the construction or upgrading of 22 sprinkler systems and seven elevators. The program routinely receives many more requests for tax credits than the state can allocate.

“Our historic downtowns are at the core of who we are as Vermonters,” said Vermont Agency of Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller. “The state’s downtown tax credit program is making significant progress in ensuring our downtowns are in good shape, accessible and safe from devastating fires.  However, history shows that without a much larger investment, we will likely lose more of these buildings requiring an even larger investment on the back end.”

St. Johnsbury has suffered three major downtown fires since 2000:  the Daniels Block fire in 2000, the Main Street fire in 2009, and the Landry Block fire on Railroad Street in 2012. Leahy said after the Main Street fire, St. Johnsbury Chief Troy Ruggles thanked Leahy for his help rebuilding, but asked him to do something to prevent the fires from happening in the first place.

“After the Daniel’s Block fire, Senator Leahy helped this town rebuild, and I knew he would help us after the Main Street fire,” said Ruggles. “However, if more of our buildings were sprinkled, the reality is we would have to call on Senator Leahy less often, we’d nearly eliminate the risk of death due to fire in our downtown, and the men and women who serve the fire department would be safer. So I asked Senator Leahy what he could do to help me prevent these fires from happening in the first place. This tax credit is a pragmatic and thoughtful solution.”

In 2000, Leahy worked with the town to secure approximately $1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help the town recover from the Daniels Block Fire.  He also secured a federal grant to help with the rebuilding of the Daniels Block.

“If Senator Leahy’s legislation had been law in 2000 and sprinklers had been in the Daniels Block, it would have saved the lives of three young men, the building and prevented the major disruption in the downtown area,” said St. Johnsbury Town Manager John Hall.  “And in 2009, maybe the buildings that housed the Convenient One and the St.  Johnsbury Pharmacy on Main Street would have taken advantage of the tax credit and we would not have the gaping cellar holes on our historic Main Street.”

Leahy is currently working with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Rural Edge and others to identify federal funding for the Main Street Fire site.

Leahy said he hopes the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act will be part of any discussions Congress undertakes to rewrite the nation’s tax code.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bob Pear on August 13, 2013 at 07:26

    The problem with the Vermont program, Chapter 76A Historic Downtown Development, is that in order to be designated a downtown development district by the state for the program, the village, (or town), would need to hire a full-time administrator of the program, and this costs money. When I was a Trustee, I had brought the idea of implementing this program in our village since we do meet all of the criteria, and the idea was dismissed because it was determined that it would cost the taxpayers about $60 to $80K/ year for the administration of it.
    There are many more incentives in the program, (listed under 24 V.S.A. § 2794), than credits for sprinklers, including credits for code improvements, (which would include handicap access), building facade improvements, historic rehabilitation, and participation in a downtown transportation fund, (which could help with our parking situation).

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  2. Posted by Donna on August 13, 2013 at 17:21

    Why not charge the cost of the administrator to the businesses that need the services of this program; it still seems like it would still save them tons of money.

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