I must follow the law, not understand it…

I knew when I sent the letters out just over a week ago that it would result in losing a tenant or two, and I was right.

The letter I sent was to all tenants who live in upper rental units in Weston, the topic of the letter: letting them know they could no longer have grills on their balconies.

I almost sent out a letter like this one almost 10 years ago. We had gotten a letter from our insurance company that they were going to cancel our company if we did not make a rule prohibiting grills on patios and balconies of apartment buildings. We responded by having them look at how many years (no .. not years but DECADES) that we had been with their company… what our loss history had been with their company. Figure out how much money we had spent in premiums and how little money we filed in claims, and then asked them again if they REALLY want to cancel us… They backed down.

This time, my change in policy wasn’t coming from an insurance company that I was in a rare position to muscle around. The change in policy was prompted by an inspection notice when the Village of Weston Fire Department inspected the apartment buildings.

One thing about laws that makes it difficult for us mere mortals to deal with is that often, local city and village ordinances are not drafted at the city and village level by people with some level of common sense as it relates to local conditions. Often, large trade associations come up with “draft ordinances” which can often be hundreds of pages long.

That is what happened to my upper unit tenants. The National Fire Protection Association (or NFPA) came out with their new rules. Keep in mind, no one is required to follow the NFPA rules per se, as the NFPA really has no rule making authority.

However, the NFPA does carry a great deal of political clout, and they do a great deal of work and research. So, rather than levels of government coming up with rules that make sense, they just assume the NFPA rules make sense and just adopt them, sometimes without even looking at them.

Anywho, buried deep somewhere within part of the new NFPA rules was a regulation that makes it illegal for grills on balconies in apartment buildings above the first floor. The State of Wisconsin adopted the NFPA regulations, and the Village of Weston adopted the State’s adaptation of the NFPA regs. So there you go, a new ordinance gets passed that has the potential to impact a large number of people without them even knowing it.

The problem is that this rule is long, very long. There is no way for the average person to know what was all going to be encompassed when the official meeting minutes talk about adapting the state rules as drafted by the NFPA.

Don’t think this is an isolated Weston problem, it isn’t. It is everywhere. Always has been. I know Wausau a few years ago wanted to mandate retrofitting all rental residences with interconnected smoke detectors that were either hardwired, or had a nine-year battery (that battery technology was not even readily available at the time, so they were basically wanting interconnected hardwired units retrofitted in). We were told by the Wausau Fire Dept. that they were doing us a favor because this gives us some options because once the NFPA was adopted with this in it, we would have to do it anyway however the NFPA rule came out.

The local Apartment Association asked the fire department to not pass this rule simply to “help” us prepare for the NFPA rule which at that time had not yet even been finalized. Sorry, but such government “help” normally isn’t that helpful. We landlords knew there was no way that such a requirement would never pass. It would hurt too many people. Especially, when no one could demonstrate that a hard-wired interconnected system in an apartment was any safer than the current battery-operated detectors required by the current law. The only people really pushing for this were the smoke detector manufacturers who would sell millions of new detectors if this passed. It didn’t. No retro-fit was needed. However, had we just accepted the Fire Dept. argument of we need this new rule because this is what the rule will be, the price of Wausau rentals would go up severely as landlords tried to figure out how to pay for this new rule.

People wonder why I spend so much time lobbying for things important to landlords at the local and state level. I do this because I have to do this. I lobby not only for things important to landlords, but also for things that are important to tenants. Most landlords want to provide tenants with safe housing and make it affordable to the average tenant. Having to spend a great deal of money doing something that doesn’t make the unit any safer… that doesn’t help landlords or tenants.

And don’t underestimate the power of the lobby that manufactures of this equipment have. The Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector law that got passed in Wisconsin is a great example of this. The manufacturers of CO detectors saw the gold mine when a rule started circulating around in Madison because of one incident of one (politically connected) person dieing in one of those rental cabins up north. Originally, the new law would require CO detectors in these almost completely unregulated cabins. However, that was not nearly enough money from future sales of products for the companies that make them. The final version of the law also included hotels and rental housing.

Although I don’t disagree that putting a CO detector in an apartment building where natural gas is used is probably a good idea, notice how owner-occupied single family homes are left out of the equation? Yet, the number of people who suffer from CO problems in homes is by and far much greater than those in apartments.

But, home owners are more likely to vote than apartment dwellers. And, if you require home owners to spend a couple of bucks on a CO detector, they are likely to remember that and vote your butt out of office next time the change comes around.

So, I must now tell my tenants that they can’t have a grill, even though this has not been a problem in the 30+ years these apartments have been around. Soon, I must install CO detectors even though the people who are most often poisoned (owner-occupied single family homes) have no such requirement. However, as I normally start off telling my students in my classes that deal with landlord-tenant law… this is the law I am speaking of and there really is little room for common sense or rational thought.


About drrent

Wausau, Wisconsin Landlord, past president of the Wisconsin Apartment Association, Host of the Dr Rent Radio Show on WNRB-LP, 93.3 FM, Wausau, WI
This entry was posted in CO Detectors, Fire Department, Grills, NFPA, Smoke Detectors, Wausau, Weston and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to I must follow the law, not understand it…

  1. Malinda says:

    As always, yours is a thoroughly enjoyable and educational blog entry. These types of nonsensical rules are what inspired me to become involved in my township’s Planning/zoning/ordinance committee.

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