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Lovejoy, county fire chief battle over subdivision

By Joel Hall and Daniel Silliman

jhall@news-daily.com

A year-long dispute between the City of Lovejoy and the Clayton County Fire Chief broke into public view Tuesday, when the chief opposed ongoing construction of a subdivision being built on land formerly owned by the mayor of Lovejoy.

On Tuesday, at the Clayton County Board of Commissioners' meeting, Fire Chief Alex Cohilas made a complaint against the city, raising questions as to whether city officials are protecting Talmadge Place Townhomes subdivision -- a new development in the southwest portion of the city -- from Clayton County fire codes requiring that sprinkler systems be installed in commercial and multi-family developments.

"For some reason, there was some interest by certain city officials there to carve out a niche for this particular townhome project," Cohilas said. "They didn't want it to become subject to the county's fire-safety code as it pertains to the sprinkler ordinance, which was quite odd, because every other project in the city of Lovejoy ... there was no objection."

City officials are arguing that the chief is overstepping his jurisdiction, by demanding pre-construction plans for Talmadge Place Townhomes, issuing stop-work orders against the subdivision and requiring fire-prevention sprinklers.

The fire chief says that some city officials are taking a special interest in the development and attempting to skimp on fire safety requirements, saving the developers about $120,000.

According to documents obtained from the fire department, through an open records request, Cohilas asked for and did not receive plans for the proposed townhomes in October 2006.

Joe Murphy, the mayor of Lovejoy and the then-owner of the eight acres at 2126 Talmadge Road, applied for permits from the county water authority, but did not submit plans for approval to the fire department, as is required by county ordinance.

A note on the plans submitted to the water authority, says that the county fire department requires sprinklers to be installed in townhomes.

A second note on the plans, says, "[Checked with] Mayor, city does not require."

The owner and developer of the land, at the time, was also the mayor, a fact which means -- according to Cohilas -- that he (the mayor) was making a fire-code exemption for his own property.

Murphy sold the land in January 2007 for $1.65 million, county records show, to a limited liability company created in December 2006. In early March, Cohilas sent a letter to Murphy, citing several conversations the two men had about the subdivision, and Cohilas asked again for the plans for the townhomes, so the fire department could approve them as meeting fire-safety-code regulations.

On Aug. 21, 2007, the fire department filed a stop-work order. The order alleged that work was underway without the required approval from the fire chief. A second order was filed and posted on the property on Aug. 22, documents show.

Sources within the fire department say the second stop-work order was served to the registered agent for the limited liability corporation, but Mayor Pro Tempore Bobby Cartwright came to the scene to dispute the order with the department official.

Two days later, the stop-work order was lifted, because the blueprints had been submitted, received, reviewed and approved. On that same day, Aug. 24, the city's attorney sent a letter to the county attorney, saying the county fire department's plan review "services will no longer be needed."

Attorney Keith Martin, representing the city, wrote that he was acting on the instructions of Bobby Cartwright. Martin said Cartwright wished to notify the county to stop all fire-code inspections and plan reviews, because "The City has retained the services of its own official for that purpose."

Martin argued that the construction is not required to meet the county fire code, but only the city's code. "Neither [standard] is enforceable in the other and neither is superior in the other," Martin said. "That's why they are separate entities."

Cohilas said he is worried about the construction of 98 townhomes, because it does not appear that the developer plans to put fire-prevention sprinklers in the units. The first plans Cohilas saw included the note that the mayor said the units would not need sprinklers. The city attorney has been arguing against the need for sprinklers.

Cohilas has worked for years to toughen fire-safety codes and has fought developers who, he says, are "more interested in the bottom line" than in safety.

He said he does not know why the city attorney is arguing against the need for sprinklers in the townhomes, but the sprinklers in each of the 98 units is estimated to cost $1,200, or a total of less than $120,000.

Martin said that Talmadge Place Townhomes exits on the ground level and thus, do not need sprinkler systems according to the minimum fire-safety requirements of the state. He argued that the county was out of their jurisdiction to enforce their sprinkler ordinances on the city.

"[Cohilas] is trying to come down here and enforce something that isn't enforceable," Martin said Wednesday. "The county's standards are irrelevant unless they are adopted by the city. State minimum standards are applicable everywhere ... county standards are applicable to unincorporated Clayton County."

Cohilas said that, to the contrary, the county's fire codes -- which are tougher than the state's -- are enforceable in Lovejoy due to an intergovernmental agreement. The agreement, signed in 2004 and in effect until the city council ends the agreement, says that all "fire services" for the city will be provided by the county fire department, and the county defines "fire services" as including code enforcement and pre-construction plan review.

The county's attorney, Michael Smith, wrote to Martin in late August, according to documents obtained by the Clayton News Daily, and said that if "the City of Lovejoy wishes to amend or terminate the agreement, then it will need to be done in a formal manner."

On Tuesday, the developers of Talmadge Place Townhomes requested that the Clayton County Board of Commissioners approve street lights on Talmadge Road. Cohilas spoke publicly, at the meeting, opposing the subdivision and airing the problems he has had with the city officials and the construction.

"We're unclear as to what the intent of the owners are, and why there is such a level of involvement from certain city officials into a project that is allegedly owned by a private LLC," he said. On Wednesday, Cohilas told a reporter he decided to oppose the development at every turn because, "we shouldn't sign off on anything until they show their true intentions. We should not be unwitting co-conspirators."

Martin, on the other hand, believes that the fire chief is over-asserting himself, over-extending his authority and attempting to intervene in things which do not concern him.

In addition to the pre-construction plan inspections, the attorney's letters also notify the county attorney that the city no longer wants to pay the fire department to conduct its fire-code inspections. Martin said the current $100 charge was "unconstitutional" and that the city would rather take $32,000 to contract with a private inspection company, and provide inspections as a free service to Lovejoy residents.

"If the county wants to come down here and do it for free, that's fine," Martin said, "but they cannot tax our citizens unfairly."