By Dan Ring, The Republican
BOSTON — The state’s highest court today ruled in favor of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Western Massachusetts in a legal dispute with the city of Springfield over a fire detection system.
In a decision written by Judge Barbara A. Lenk, the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld a Hampden Superior Court judge’s 2010 ruling that supported the church’s fire detection system installed at its cultural center in 2009.
Click here and then go to slip opinions to read the decision.
The court said the church complied with an option in the state building code and that the state code preempts a city ordinance. Under the city ordinance, the city sought to require the church to install a particular type of detection system allowed in another choice in the state code.
If the city ordinance were allowed to stand, it could sanction the development of different applicable building codes in each of the state’s 351 cities and towns, precisely the result that the state code was intended to prevent, the court said.
“If all municipalities in the Commonwealth were allowed to enact similarly restrictive ordinances and bylaws, a patchwork of building regulations would ensue,” the decision said.
Edward M. Pikula, city solicitor for Springfield, said the city ordinance covered about 250 buildings and that only a handful, including the church, were out of compliance.
Pikula said city officials are working on changes to the ordinance that would need approval of the City Council and the mayor.
“It will broaden the scope of acceptable systems to mirror the building code,” he said of the changes.
Pikula said he believes that other communities have ordinances, policies and regulations similar to Springfield and will also need to make revisions in the wake of the court’s decision.
The lawyer for the church, John H. Fitz-Gibbon, of Northampton, said he was very pleased with the decision. “To us, it was a fairly obvious conflict with state law,” he said.
He also said the court decision would have statewide effects. In addition, he said that communities in other states are also dealing with the underlying dispute about whether a fire department can dictate a fire-detection system when a state code provides different options.
Fitz-Gibbon said the church’s choice of a fire-detection system was less expensive to install. Under that system, he said the monthly monitoring fees went to a private company and were also cheaper.
Under the city’s ordinance, the church had to pay a monthly fee to the city, he said.
Fitz-Gibbon said the church’s pick for a system was also safer, though he acknowledged the city might argue that point. Both systems were equally efficient under the code, he said.
The city of Springfield attempted to require the church to comply with a city ordinance that mandates a type of fire detection system. The church installed a system that complied with the state code but not the city ordinance.
The church eventually sued the city in Hampden Superior Court, seeking to invalidate the ordinance and a $3,000 fine for failure to comply. The fine was $100 a day for each day the violation existed.
The state building code permits the installation of any one of four types of approved “fire protective signaling systems and automatic fire detection systems” in buildings throughout the state, the court said.
The city ordinance, approved in 2006, requires that all buildings in the city utilize the fourth option in state the code, which it described as a “city approved radio box,” to alert the fire department when an alarm has sounded, the court said.
The city had appealed a ruling by Hampden Judge Cornelius J. Moriarty, saying the state code does not block the city from passing an ordinance to enforce fire safety within its borders.
“The ordinance enhances fire department response efficiency by eliminating potential system failures, enhancing and promoting shorter response times, and providing for a single, uniform monitoring system for the local fire department to operate under,” the city’s appeal said.