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Our view: We're all for safety, but code goes too far

This doesn't have to be a battle between homebuilders and firefighters. This doesn't have to be contentious at all. Surely we're all on the side of safety and Minnesotans not being killed anymore in tragic house fires.

But the adoption of the International Residential Code in Minnesota, even if in the name of safety and preventing deaths, doesn't sit right. It would require the installation of expensive and questionably necessary sprinkler systems when houses larger than 4,500 square feet are being constructed in the state. Sprinklers quickly douse flames, no question about that; and more power to anyone building a new home who chooses to include them. But the government requiring it? That feels like a government reaching too far -- and intruding on private-property rights.

Sprinkler systems aren't cheap, and a requirement to have them promises to be a boon only to those who install and maintain them. Government could cash in, too, of course, if it chooses to conduct annual inspections and then charge a fee for them. The cost of installation, according to the Builders Association of Minnesota, is $2.30 per square foot. So putting a system into a new, 4,500-square-foot home would cost $10,350. And if that new home is in a rural setting without access to municipal water the cost jumps to $3.72 per square foot, or $16,740. And then there's regular, ongoing maintenance to make sure the system doesn't fail, causing untold dollar losses from water damage.

Government regulations related to homebuilding already are growing costlier in Minnesota. A decade and a half ago, regulatory costs were 10 percent of the final price of building a home, Nick Olson, president of the Hermantown-based Arrowhead Builders Association, points out in a commentary that will be published in the News Tribune on Sunday. Today, those costs are 25 percent. Minnesota already has among the most-burdensome homebuilding and land-development regulations in the country. And that's without a sprinkler mandate.

Olson and others question whether sprinkler systems are even needed. Minnesota's law requiring all new homes to have interconnected, hardwired, battery-backed smoke detectors throughout dwellings already has "resulted in the disappearance of fire deaths altogether in new homes in Minnesota," he wrote. The focus of our state and fire officials would be better placed on existing homes, especially older homes and rentals, and making sure they have working smoke detectors with fresh batteries.

Legislation could be introduced this session in St. Paul to head off the fire-sprinkler mandate. At least twice previously such bills have been passed by lawmakers only to be vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton. This year can be different. This year, homebuilders, firefighters, lawmakers and the governor can all stand on the side of safety -- while also standing on the side of sensible, and not burdensome, building requirements.