To: All Heads of Fire Departments
From: Stephen D. Coan, State Fire Marshal
Date: August 1, 2006
Re: Massachusetts Sober Housing Corporation v. Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board ….A Case of Interest

The Commonwealth's Appeals Court recently upheld a decision of the State's Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board requiring an automatic sprinkler system in a house owned by the Massachusetts Sober Housing Corporation (MSHC), a nonprofit organization.

MSHC purchases single-family houses in residential neighborhoods and operates them as "sober houses," where men or women recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction may live together in a safe and affordable home environment. MSHC owns each property and leases it to an unincorporated association comprised of the house's residents.

The City of Chelsea issued an order pursuant to M.G.L. c. 148, § 26H, to install sprinklers in a house purchased and renovated by MSHC. Section 26, which applies to any city or town that has voted to accept its provisions, requires "every lodging house or boarding house" to be protected with an adequate system of automatic sprinklers. The statute defines a lodging house as "a house where lodgings are let to six or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting it… ".

MSHC argued that the MSHC arrangement did not fit the precise statutory definition of "lodgings" under the statute nor does it conform to the historical meaning of a "lodging" or "boarding house". MSHC further asserted that the building was properly understood as a single-family home, and that this is how the city agreed to classify the particular building when it entered into the memorandum of understanding granting MSHC a reasonable zoning accommodation.

The Appeals Court unanimously upheld the decision of the Sprinkler Appeals Board and adopted much of the Board's reasoning which emphasized that it "has consistently determined that the provisions of [G.L. c. 148, § 26H, apply to all houses that fit the criteria stated in the statute." It further stated that the "purpose of the automatic sprinkler requirement is to protect public safety in the event of a fire". The Court agreed with the Board's determination that the statute applies to all such buildings, "in a neutral manner, without regard to the ... disability status of the building occupants" and the Board's finding that "although the statute requires a monetary expenditure related to the installation of a fire sprinkler system, it clearly does not prohibit the intended use of the house to accomplish its mission".

The Appeals court found that house was properly deemed a "lodging house" and like a traditional lodging or boarding house, it propose is to house a good number of unrelated men in a non-institutional setting, in a residential neighborhood, in a large house with many bedrooms. The court reasoned that the increased risk of fire or injury associated with traditional lodging or boarding house arrangements would appear equally applicable to the MSHC House and it's admirable communal emphasis.

In conclusion, the court gave deference to the Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board's reasonable interpretation of its own statute and to the board's expertise and experience in the technical aspects of fire safety. The court concluded that the board's "well-informed" decision was "supported by substantial evidence and contained no errors of law".

You may contact Peter A. Senopoulos, Counsel for the Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board, @ 978-567-3183 if you have any questions.