With no veto from mayor, new law altering city’s fire code takes effect

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It was a big night in the Baltimore City Council chambers, as lawmakers approved new measures adopting a citywide Complete Streets transportation framework, raising taxes on property sales to fund affordable housing and mandating that most places with public bathrooms add diaper-changing facilities. The council also approved a shift of $21 million to pay for the Baltimore Police Department’s overruns on overtime from 2017, even as five of the 15 members opposed the move.

Also last night, a measure changing Baltimore’s fire code–passed by the council months ago–took effect, despite a lack of a signature from Mayor Catherine Pugh.

While the mayor typically signs or vetoes a bill after it’s passed by the council, legislation can still be enacted without a signature “if the mayor fails to sign the bill within three regular Council meetings,” legislative procedures say. The third such meeting was last night.

Sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey and passed by the council in August, the bill changes Appendix D of Baltimore’s fire code to sub in more flexible language concerning required street clearances for fire trucks. The measure was the end result of more than a year of clashes between firefighters and cycling advocates.

The disagreements began in spring 2017 with community outcry and a subsequent redesign of Canton’s Potomac Street cycle track. Thereafter, cycling advocates and developers said the Baltimore City Fire Department started vetoing cycling infrastructure and other projects at the Planning Department’s Site Planning Review Committee. The agency was turning them down, arguing the plans sacrificed too much street width for tillers and other equipment to operate comfortably, posing a threat to public safety.

Responding to complaints from cyclists, developers and pedestrians, Dorsey this year introduced the bill to change the fire code to follow Complete Streets guidelines, used in other pedestrian-catering major cities around the country. He and other council members gave the department a chance to work more cooperatively with cycling advocates and developers, saying they wouldn’t alter the fire code if BCFD could compromise with other parties.

It didn’t pan out. The department responded by making a home movie further pleading its case for why bike lanes are disruptive for firefighters. The video drew the ire of council members, and the ordeal ended with the City Council passing the fire code law in August, anyway.

It then sat on the desk of Mayor Catherine Pugh, who could sign or veto the legislation. She did neither; when Baltimore Fishbowl reached out multiple times to ask what she would do, Pugh spokesman James Bentley said she was still reviewing the bill and hadn’t made a decision. “Her only stance is that she wants to ensure citizens are able to reside in those neighborhoods safely,” Bentley said in August.

Reached by email today, he confirmed the bill became law yesterday, and “is on its way to treasury to get an ordinance number.”

The change, welcomed by advocates for reforming Baltimore’s aged, car-centric transportation infrastructure, comes weeks after the Department of Transportation announced a light at the end of the tunnel (early 2019) for finishing the long-delayed Downtown Bicycle Network, and as the agency now prepares to set a Complete Streets-focused design framework for Baltimore’s roads that should cater more to pedestrians and public transit users.

Dorsey has also introduced legislation that would reduce general maximum speed limits for city roads, in line with the traffic-calming Complete Streets guidelines. The bill remains with the Land Use and Transportation Committee.

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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