City council passes bill altering fire code to address stalled bike lane, building projects

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The Baltimore City Council on Monday passed legislation changing the city’s fire code to substitute more flexible language governing street clearance for fire apparatus, a change Councilman Ryan Dorsey and others have said will speed up installation of cycling infrastructure and facilitate a handful of development projects.

The bill now sits on the desk of Mayor Catherine Pugh. James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said Tuesday afternoon that “she’s still reviewing the legislation,” and “her only stance is that she wants to ensure citizens are able to reside in those neighborhoods safely.”

The seemingly in-the-weeds issue concerning how much space is comfortable for firetrucks to set up became a public clash this summer between the Baltimore City Fire Department—which has argued bike lanes are shrinking space for apparatus to operate, threatening public safety—and cycling advocates, who are forever pushing for movement on stalled bike lanes and other infrastructure.

Since a spring 2017 kerfuffle over Canton’s Potomac Street Cycle Track, BCFD has vetoed projects at the city Planning Department’s Site Planning Review Committee.

Developers have also backed the change to the code, citing a handful of projects stalled by fire department opposition due to street-clearance concerns. Councilman Eric Costello, chair of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, in particular has called out the stalled Charles Village Streetscape, the Townes at Eager Park, the redevelopment of the former PEMCO factory in Southeast Baltimore and the Woodberry Subdivision.

In June, Costello told BCFD to make “demonstrable progress” with cyclists and developers on stalled projects if they wanted to avoid any changes to the fire code.

BCFD responded by filming a nine-minute video in which crews set up a tiller outside the homes of Liz Cornish, executive director of cycling advocacy nonprofit Bikemore, and a cyclist who was allegedly assaulted by a firefighter at a heated May public meeting about cycling infrastructure, on Maryland Avenue to demonstrate the scarcity of room for their truck to anchor down between parked cars near bike lanes. They also filmed a segment on Cathedral Street downtown, outside the Severn Apartments.

At a council committee hearing about the video on July 3, members chided a defensive Fire Chief Niles Ford over what they perceived as attempt by BCFD to intimidate opposition while making their case. Some council members also did not find the video made a strong argument; Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young remarked that the footage “shows to me, clearly, that the fire department can get to fires in these narrow streets.”

Dorsey, an advocate for traffic-calming and pedestrian-friendly projects, said on Twitter Monday that his bill’s passage was step for Baltimore to adopt modern urban street design principles. His colleagues approved it unanimously.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Cornish expressed gratitude toward the council–particularly Young, Dorsey and Costello–for “stewarding this bill through the legislative process.”

“It’s important to note that this bill does not change BCFD’s role in project plans review,” she pointed out. “It simply ensures that conversation around fire access begins at a place that fully considers the benefits of designing a city safe for biking and walking.”

The council also passed a bill to block any future attempts to privatize the city’s water system. The legislation, introduced and fast-tracked to third reader by Young on Monday, declares the city’s pipes “inalienable,” and says they cannot be sold to companies like Suez Environment that have pitched officials to lease out the water and sewer systems.

Pugh has said she plans to sign the bill into law.

Councilwoman Shannon Sneed also introduced a bill that would set higher standards for designated breastfeeding areas for working women in Baltimore. The ordinance would require employers to position lactation rooms close to a mother’s workspace, enable the rooms to be locked from the inside and include a sink and refrigerator for storing breast milk, among other requirements.

The council’s next meeting is Sept. 17.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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