2007-01-03, 11:41

Why fire regulations can conflict with mixed use

By: Jonathan Groner
James Bacon is a Virginia-based journalist and Web author and the former publisher and editor in chief of Virginia Business magazine. He runs a fascinating Web site called Bacon's Rebellion, www.baconsrebellion.com, that calls itself "the op/ed page for Virginia's new economy." It focuses on a variety of issues in the Commonwealth -- transportation, development, and public policy of all sorts. I will be returning to Bacon's Rebellion from time to time, I am sure.

Right now, I want to highlight a piece that Bacon wrote on Dec. 18, 2006, entitled "Design by Fire Truck." It makes the fascinating point that development on a human scale, the New Urbanism, and mixed use have been impeded by -- the need to build broad, pedestrian-unfriendly streets in suburbia to permit access by fire trucks! The story focuses on the rezoning and redevelopment of the Tree Hill farm in Henrico County, Va., near Richmond. The full story is now on the home page of the site, noted above. Here is an excerpt:

The point of contention: the width and turning radius of Tree Hill's streets. [Renowned architect and planner Elizabeth] Plater-Zyberk, a leading visionary of the New Urbanism school of development, regarded narrow streets as a critical component of the pedestrian-friendly community she envisioned for the river-side community. But [Deputy Fire Marshal David] Seay, an anonymous public servant, stood in the way. If the streets were too narrow and the corners too tight, he said, the county's fire trucks couldn't reach every house. County regulations called for turning radii of 25 feet, Seay said. No exceptions allowed.

* * *

Building "pedestrian friendly" communities is all the rage now in the Richmond region and much of Virginia. As consumer tastes change, developers have gotten that old-time religion: People want mixed-use communities with the scale, look and feel of 1920s-era small towns. They want to live where they can work and play, and they want streetscapes that invite them to walk instead of drive.

Even county planners and local elected officials are seeing the light: When people walk to a restaurant, the drug store or the corner video store, it means they're not driving. Pedestrian-friendly communities take cars off the road and alleviate traffic congestion, relieving the pressure on state and local governments to lay more asphalt at great expense.

While many local government officials are increasingly comfortable with New Urbanism design, the fire-fighting profession still mans the barricades. When it comes to regulations that might save peoples' lives, fire fighters aren't inclined to compromise. The result, as land use attorney Daniel K. Slone puts it caustically, is "design by fire truck."


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