A proposed state law that would wipe out restrictions on building wood-frame apartments in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs was torched by officials at March 2 press conference as increasing fire dangers.

Organized by a concrete industry group, the press conference was staged inside a Sandy Springs firehouse and had Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders showing a video of a wooden “doll house” burning much faster and more completely than a concrete-board version. Some other speakers included state Sen. John Albers (R-Alpharetta) – a longtime firefighter – and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who noted that his family has farmed trees in Alabama and is pro-timber-industry, “but for me it’s about safety.”

Sandy Springs Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders speaks at the March 2 press conference. Listening are fellow speakers, from left, Mayor Rusty Paul; building code authority Steve Skalko; and state Sen. John Albers. (John Ruch)

Their concern is over House Bill 876, which would bar local restrictions on wood in construction, which would still have to meet state fire codes. State Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), the bill’s lead sponsor, was not swayed by the press conference.

“The data does not back up their claims,” he said.

The bill is a battleground of construction material lobbies, as the timber industry reportedly had a big influence on its filing, and the press conference was organized by the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, whose Georgia chapter is based in Sandy Springs.

It’s one of several General Assembly bills Sandy Springs officials fear could end local control on topics ranging from short-term rentals to pet sales. The City Council is poised to issue a resolution March 6 formally opposing another such bill that would erase any city’s ability to limit pole and antenna place for wireless networks. All of the bills at issue involve regulation of big businesses, and in some cases, rural-vs.-urban policy conflicts.

House Bill 876 – which won House passage Feb. 22 and is now before a Senate committee – is one of those bills. It was ultimately triggered by Sandy Springs’ 2016 establishment of a code requiring apartment buildings over three stories tall or over 100,000 square feet in size to be constructed with steel and masonry rather than wood framing. Dunwoody has a similar code – applying to buildings over three stories or over 200,000 square feet – instituted in 2014, according to City Councilmember Terry Nall.

In rural Georgia, home to many tree-farmers and sawmills, that’s bad news for the wood industry. In the suburbs, it was pitched as both a fire safety improvement and a way to reduce the amount of apartments by making them more expensive to build, a stance that got concrete industry backing.

The dispute has room for compromise, officials said, and it has some nuances that are easy to see. Right across the street from the Johnson Ferry Road firehouse where the press conference was held, brand new wood-frame apartments stand as part of City Springs, the city’s new public-private civic center complex. Those apartments were approved before the city’s wood-frame restriction went into effect, and Paul said officials did not push for more concrete construction at the time, as they were not aware of the fire safety concerns.

Lon Sibert, who runs a Sandy Springs-based wood inspection business, questions Mayor Rusty Paul about the basis for the city’s wood-frame construction restrictions. Among those listening are, at left, City Councilmember John Paulson and, at far right, firefighter Mark Ware, who is also an official with the Georgia State Firefighters Association. (John Ruch)

Paul acknowledged that his original motivation behind the wood-frame restriction code was a “temporary measure” to halt the spread of apartments, which are locally controversial as producing traffic and whose residents are seen by many homeowners as less engaged in civic life. The idea is that concrete is more expensive, so fewer apartments would be built and would be better quality when they were.

But, Paul added, fire safety became a top city motive for the ordinance in early 2016 after Sanders showed the City Council a video of a 2015 Abernathy Road apartment fire where a woman leaped from a window and was paralyzed.

However, those apartments are three stories tall and could still be built with wood framing under the new code. Paul said the city wanted to balance safety with feasibility, as not every structure can be made of concrete and steel. He noted the code allows most types of buildings to be made of wood.

“I have a wood-frame house. I go to bed peacefully at night not worrying about [fire],” Paul said. “Wood is perfectly good … for 90 percent of the construction that goes on.”

He suggested that only about 5 percent of potential redevelopment in the city is affected by the code, “so the big kerfuffle over such a small part of our building code is concerning to me.”

Lon Sibert, who runs a Sandy Springs-based wood inspection business, attended the press conference and told Paul he believes the city’s facts may be unreliable. Sibert, who said he once served as a volunteer firefighter in California, asked whether the city is open to other advice.

“Yeah, we’ll sit down with anybody, as long as you can demonstrate to us the alternatives are safe,” Paul replied.

Fire Chief Sanders said that he has been a firefighter since 1979, and in that time has seen such improvements as sprinkler systems, but also wood-frame buildings rising taller and with more flammable materials such as glue in their construction. High-density, mixed-use buildings are harder to work around with fire trucks, he said. He used the video of the burning miniature houses, made behind the Wieuca Road fire station the night before, to highlight the differences, though they were not built with the full components of actual apartment buildings.

YouTube video

“Fire today burns hotter [and] faster, and the structure is much … less safe for my personnel,” Sanders said.

Paul also emphasized firefighter safety, noting that politically speaking, all state legislators surely support the well-being of first responders.

“I’m not a community development director… I’m a fire chief,” Sanders said of his focus on firefighter safety. But he weighed in on the industry dispute, too, saying a review by his fire marshal found that 90 percent of wood in Sandy Springs structures “came from Canada and Idaho, not even Georgia.”

Local control is an underlying issue. Paul argues that House Bill 876 violates the state Constitution, which gives cities the ability to set building codes above state minimums. Corbett says the Constitution also gives the General Assembly the right to restrict those city powers.

Steve Skalko, a Macon-based building code consultant, also spoke at the press conference. He said building codes are intended to be adapted by local governments to meet local situation, such as higher-density cities versus lower-density rural areas.

Albers said he is working to “greatly modify” or kill the bill, and punned that he will present “some very concrete evidence why it’s important not to do this,” while seeking a “healthy balance” with the wood industry.

“I know the government that is closest to the people is always the best solution to serving the people,” Albers said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.