Nine months after the state's new fire code went into effect mandating access to a sufficient water supply, more than half of the city of Naples homes that fall under the code do not meet requirements.
City officials initially delayed enforcing the code until Sept. 1, citing budget woes and calling new water flow requirements "unfunded mandates." And at a recent meeting they voted to push enforcement back another five months.
In the meantime, the city continues to permit homes that don't meet the code, concerning some contractors who say that could lead to lower property values.
"We're building some of the biggest homes in the state of Florida and we have legitimate deficiencies," Fire Chief Steve McInerny said.
According to the code, one- and two-family homes exceeding 5,000 square feet must have access to water that can be pumped at 1,500 gallons per minute for two hours. Of the 72 homes exceeding 5,000 square feet and permitted in Naples for 2012, 41 do not meet their water requirements with current city infrastructure, city records show.
When the code went into effect Dec. 31, 2011, McInerny conferred with City Council and agreed to a Sept. 1 deadline to begin enforcing the rules, which only affect new constructions. The delay was to help officials find a way to make water available.
"It took us a few months to identify changes in the code," McInerny said. "We brought in a consultant, got a report, brought it to City Council. We've been on this issue since February and thought September would give us a reasonable amount of time to get the word out to builders and architects."
At a recent meeting, council members again voted to delay the enforcement date, this time until Jan. 1, 2013.
Deborah Jamison, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal, said the state hasn't received any complaints of noncompliance in Naples. She wouldn't comment on whether the city could face consequences in the meantime.
In a letter to the fire marshal dated April 17, 2012, Mayor John Sorey called the requirements "unfunded mandates" and said the burden of meeting them would negatively impact builders, homeowners and the Naples housing market. Sorey asked for more control at the local level similar to what previous fire codes allowed.
City Fire Marshal Larry Bacci said he hasn't had correspondence with the state fire marshal and he doesn't anticipate problems for homeowners who have permitted their homes this year.
"We're expecting to have the problem fixed," he said.
"There's no reasonable danger," Bacci said. "And the homes that are being permitted now won't be built for months down the road."
City officials disagree as to whether the onus is on the city to provide the flow — through expensive water main upgrades or the purchase a $250,000 fire boat — or homeowners, who can install pricey fire sprinkler systems or use fire-resistant building materials. A hydraulic analysis will be finished this month showing where the city lacks proper water flow and how to fix it, City Manager Bill Moss said.
McInerny said he does not know of any homes that were permitted for sprinkler systems. It's unclear how many homeowners used fire-resistant building materials.
"We've got to address this, it is the law," Sorey said. "I was in favor of pushing the date back. I will not be in favor of a second time."
At the city's budget workshop in August, council argued about whether to buy a $250,000 fire boat to help meet flow requirements. Moss said of the city's eight boats, the fire boat is the only one capable of pumping water to fight fires.
Council is set to vote on purchasing the boat at Wednesday's meeting.
Councilman Sam Saad said that while owning the boat would earn the city some credits toward its flow requirements, it wouldn't actually help put fires out by the time firefighters drove to the dock, boarded the boat and reached the home on fire.
McInerny and Moss disagreed. Not only would the boat help put fires out, it was a cheap solution to meeting the law, they said.
Falconer Jones III, owner of Falcon Design in Naples was originally against the purchase of a fire boat until he learned what the flow requirements would mean for builders. Many low-end sprinkler systems are inadequate and flimsy, Jones said, and the good ones are more expensive than city council would admit.
Buying a boat would alleviate the requirements for builders and homeowners even if it only meant meeting an arbitrary state standard, he said.
"The houses aren't causing this problem. The builders aren't causing this problem. It's the city water system," Jones said. "It's inadequate and this is a way to shift that responsibility to the homeowners."
Jones said he believes property values could decline 6 to 9 percent if homes don't meet code. Sorey said he doesn't believe property values will suffer.
"As usual, there's been a lot of incorrect information and rhetoric," Sorey said.