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Mayor Suggests City Resume Fire Inspections of Bed and Breakfast Inns

 

By Jack Fichter

CAPE MAY — City Council is considering taking away fire inspections of bed and breakfast inns from the state and returning them to the city’s fire department.
Mayor Edward J. Mahaney Jr. said owners of historic inns cannot meet the demands of state inspectors without jeopardizing the integrity of the building or spending huge amounts of money for renovations, which could put them out of business.
“It would eliminate one, chronic, nagging problem that has become an area of concern economically and safety wise for residents, businesspeople and tourists,” said Mahaney.
The mayor said he would like to see the city’s fire department resume the inspections.
Fire inspectors from the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Bureau of Fire Safety have been presenting demands that bed and breakfast owners cannot comply with causing some to put their inns up for sale or convert them to condos or whole house rentals.
At a Jan. 5 City Council meeting, resident John Fleming questioned why the city’s fire department stopped inspecting B&Bs and inns and turned over the duties to the state. The fire department handled the inspections from the late 1990s until 2003.
“Since the state has taken over, it’s a mess,” said Fleming.
He said a state fire inspector caused the Cape May Marlin and Tuna Club to spend $25,000 to replace a new fire escape that had just been installed. Fleming described the inspector as “arrogant and pompous,” and said holding a discussion with the individual was impossible.
Mahaney said in the late 1990’s or early 2000s, council was involved in negotiations with the city’s paid firefighters. He said the firefighters were seeking a raise in a year with a tight city budget.
The mayor said it was agreed upon the fire department would handle fire inspections of B&Bs. He said it was intended to raise some money to offset raises for the firefighters.
Council’s rationale for approval was the firefighters would understand the dichotomies between the state fire code and the integrity of historic buildings and be able to mesh those together, said Mahaney.
He said the firefighters would also become familiar with the layout of the inns.
“It seemed to work very well,” said Mahaney.
He said he voluntarily left council in June 2003 and shortly thereafter the inspections by Cape May firefighters ceased and the state took over the duties.
A number of B&B owners have appealed to Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st) for assistance.
“I can’t understand to this day why it changed other than the fire department convinced someone, I assume, they didn’t have the time to do it any more,” commented former mayor and councilman Jerry Gaffney, who was seated in the audience.
City Solicitor Tony Monzo said the inspections were ended locally at the request of the fire department. He said council did not initiate the change.
Mahaney said when a safety issue was found at an inn, the city’s fire department worked with the innkeeper to find a solution.
Councilwoman Linda Steenrod said the Cape May Historic Accommodations Association planned to request the city resume the fire inspections.
Council will discuss the matter during their February work session.
Innkeeper and historic preservationist Elan Zingman-Leith told the Herald his preference was for the fire code to be appropriate to the risk involved. The code says B&Bs are safer than private homes since neither cooking nor smoking is permitted in B&B rooms, he said.
“I’m in favor the administrative code being written appropriately,” said Zingman-Leith “Who administers it is secondary.”
The state Division of Fire Safety met with innkeepers here two weeks ago to present the results of a one-year study it under took on historic inns. The results of the study are supposed to lead to a change in the fire code, said Zingman-Leith.
State inspectors have given violation notices to a number of Cape May innkeepers in the past two years but of late have not scheduled court dates.

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