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Hagerstown safety code could force landlords to change ceiling heights in buildings

October 23, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- Some Hagerstown landlords could find themselves paying thousands of dollars if they're ordered to raise the ceiling height of their rental properties to satisfy a city code, the president of a local group representing landlords said Wednesday.

Allan Johnson, president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County Maryland Inc., said that the city's recent decision to enforce a code that requires ceilings to be at least 7 feet high would leave some landlords with a tough decision: Either pay thousands of dollars for renovations, or "not utilize" their buildings.

Many of the buildings were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s and have ceilings that are lower than 6 feet high, Johnson said. The height of ceilings in rental properties had not been an issue for 50 years, he said, so "Why change it now?" he asked.

"I know they have to draw the line somewhere, but you have to be practical," Johnson said. "I understand the safety issues ... I don't think a couple of inches would make any difference."

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Chief Code Compliance Officer John Lestitian discussed the issue with the Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday.

He said the ceilings should be raised because smoke, in the event of a fire, accumulates at the highest point. The higher the ceiling, the safer the building, Lestitian said.

"The increased level of safety far outweighs the cost (to the landlords)," Lestitian said.

Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer told Lestitian that she could appreciate the safety issue, but said landlords might have to raise the rent to compensate for the construction costs.

She said people in a structure that is on fire are supposed to drop to their hands and knees to avoid the smoke, so a ceiling that is a few inches lower than 7 feet shouldn't make a difference.

Lestitian said the city could make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. An alternative to raising the ceilings, he said, would be to make landlords install more smoke detectors or add a way out, such as a window.

Several properties, however, have ceilings that are lower than 6 feet, Lestitian said. In those cases, the city would "take the appropriate action."

"What price do we put on someone's life?" he said. "What cost do we put on someone's safety?"

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