BELLEFONTE — In 2004, a blaze destroyed the apartment complex that once was the Bellefonte Academy, and 30 people lost their homes.
When another historic building, the Bush House, was destroyed by fire in 2006, the borough wanted to stop the devastating trend that was taking shape. Officials formed a task force to explore ways to prevent fires in the Bellefonte’s historic buildings.
After the Cadillac Building was damaged by a fire in 2009, the borough expanded its property maintenance code to require inspections of commercial buildings.
No one has been killed in the fires, and the borough has made progress in its prevention efforts. With the Hotel Do De fire a week ago, all eyes are on what steps borough officials will take now that the number has reached four.
Borough officials have said they have done as much as they can, but the one prevention measure council has not acted on is to require property owners to install sprinklers.
The answer to that is not as black and white as it might seem, officials say, largely because of the high price tag to the property owners.
“The owners have said, ‘I’ll close it up, I’ll board it up,’ ” said Ralph Stewart, the borough’s manager.
The sprinkler topic might come up as the discussion of what’s next moves to a public meeting tonight.
The Borough Council will have a work session from 6 to 7:30 p.m. devoted to the fire. The first half our will be a presentation from Fire Chief Tim Schreffler, and an open discussion about fire prevention topics will go follow for the next hour.
The public is invited to attend the meeting, which is at the second-floor council chambers of the municipal building at 236 W. Lamb St.
The Hotel Do De did not have sprinklers installed, because borough code doesn’t require it.
The building did have an interconnected smoke alarm system — meaning when one alarm goes off, they all do. That’s part of the borough’s expanded property maintenance code, which was put into place after the Cadillac Building fire and took effect in 2011.
About a dozen buildings in the borough have sprinklers, said borough code enforcement officer Russell Shuey. One of them is the one beside the Do De — the Centre County Courthouse Annex.
The county bought the former bank building and renovated it in 2005, before the code was in place. It now houses a courtroom and court-related offices.
A sprinkler system on four floors of the building cost the county $119,700, which came out to a cost of $10 to $11 per square foot, said county Administrator Tim Boyde.
Earlier this summer, the county bought the Temple Court building, which is beside the Courthouse Annex on Allegheny Street, and the county is exploring using that building for court or county services.
Boyde said the county would have to have a sprinkler system installed as part of a renovation project, and he expects that price tag to be $225,000 to $250,000. That’s a “reasonable number to look at,” he said.
The Brockerhoff House building on Allegheny Street has a sprinkler system that was installed as part of a renovation project in the 1980s, borough officials said.
The large Crider Exchange building, which houses the Diamond Deli, Plumb’s Drug Store and others on Allegheny Street plus 26 apartments above, does not have a sprinkler system.
Borough officials think it would cost the property owner $420,000 to $500,000 to retrofit that building with a system.
What code the borough has on the books now is complex, Shuey said. It does not make a blanket requirement that property owners install sprinklers.
“It’s not that easy,” Shuey said.
It depends on many factors, such as how big the property is, what it is used for and what kinds of potential hazards or hazardous activities are inside.
Shuey said commercial property owners who have apartment units in the upstairs of their buildings have opted for installing certain ceilings that prevent fires.
Even if the Borough Council required sprinklers in commercial buildings, the ordinance would have to go through the state Department of Labor and Industry for approval, Shuey said.
The task force that convened in the wake of the Bush House fire made a slew of recommendations in 2007 that the borough took, such as implementing a fire safety education program and the commercial building inspection program, and adopting new fire-related codes, like the one for interconnected smoke alarms.
The task force did recommend the installation of sprinkler systems in all commercial buildings that are three stories or higher within 10 years. Borough officials at the time balked at the cost for property owners, and borough officials now stand by that, too.
Stewart, the borough manager, said the recommendation from the task force didn’t address any financial details. It says nothing about who pays for the sprinklers.
Borough officials did try using more than $130,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding toward installing sprinkler systems in buildings a few years ago, but the state never gave their project the go-ahead.
That is apparently because that grant money is intended for projects to benefit the public and not for improvements to private buildings, Assistant Borough Manager Don Holder-man said. The borough has diverted that unused grant funding toward a street-scape project on Bishop and Allegheny streets.
Officials said the most important recommendation the borough took from the task force was the one about property maintenance code changes.
The first implementation covered residential properties and was later expanded to cover commercial buildings.
The code changes now have Shuey in charge of inspecting 312 commercial buildings every other year. So far, in the first cycle that started in June 2011, Shuey has inspected 124 buildings, some of which he said he had to re-inspect four or five times before they passed.
The residential apartments of the Do De were inspected, but Shuey had not gotten to inspect the kitchen and bar areas before the building caught fire.
The borough has made “great strides” in fire prevention, said Erin Hammerstedt, of Bellefonte, who was on the fire safety task force years ago and works with Preservation Pennsylvania, an organization that works to help people protect historic buildings.
She sees room to grow, too, with even more code enforcement and encouragement of property owners to install fire suppression systems.
“Hopefully Bellefonte will once again be activated by this disaster, and take the next steps in ensuring that its residents and visitors are safe, and that its valuable historic buildings are not destroyed,” she said.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT