The Beached Whale has become the latest island business that has been adversely affected by state building safety regulations less than two months after being approved for a deck expansion via a special exception request by Town of Fort Myers Beach officials.
Representatives of the 1249 Estero Blvd. restaurant were ready to break ground on construction after they said they received all development orders and building permits. They were shocked when they found out the most recent Florida Building Code under subsection 903.21.2 states automatic suppression systems are required before any construction when the fire occupancy load reaches 100 or more.
In early June, Council granted approval to allow the addition of a front-side, outdoor dining deck where back-out parking spaces currently are situated. Two weeks ago, results from a Town building safety inspection dispirited staff members and consultants to the point where the idea of building a deck may be put on hold.
Council-approved deck projects may not be built due to state building safety regulations that require fire suppression systems installed if occupancy levels rise above a certain number.
"If we want to expand or add on, we have to come up to 100 percent compliance," said Greg Stamper, a consultant for Doc Ford's and The Beach Whale. "I don't know what the bill will be on a sprinkler system for a place like this. I'm guessing $40,000 to $50,000. I don't think a 'mom and pop' place down the road will be able to front $50,000 if they want to add on something small. This changes the idea of what we want to happen."
Ken Miller, the Town's building safety services coordinator, stated the process is no different in any other community. He also checked the 2007 edition of the Florida Building Code and stated the occupancy load requirement has the the same standards as the current 2010 edition.
"We cannot make the State Building Code more stringent than any other code. We can't change that," he said. "We do our best to work with people who come in with work permits. We try to offer them different strategies that allow them to do what they want to do with the least amount of inconvenience. In the process, sometimes our hands are tied in cases like this."
The Beached Whale is an older cottage-style building that does not possess an indoor sprinkler system. One must be installed before final approval for construction. Smokin' Oyster Brewery, located at 340 Old San Carlos Boulevard, suffers the same fate after Council granted that business a special exception for a deck expansion in early December 2012.
After a business gets approval to expand its business' seating capacity, the pre-construction process begins with the submittal of a permit application, the Town reviewal of it and submission to Lee County (due to interlocal agreement) which, in turn, reviews building, mechanical and electrical codes. The FMB Fire Control District also conducts a concurrent fire code review.
"Once that is issued, (County) performs all the inspections," said Miller.
Capt. Ron Martin, the Beach Fire Marshal, confirmed the state building code sets the standards.
"Florida Building Code has specific provisions where automatic sprinkler systems are required based on an additional occupancy load for proposed expansion," he said. "With the requirement of an additional occupancy load, an automated fire suppression system is needed."
Both Beach establishments in question are considered assembly occupancies (A-2) within the Florida Building Code, says Miller. The designation includes restaurants, night clubs and bars that sell food and/or drink.
The Beached Whale's proposed deck, which gave the establishment the right to serve alcohol and food outdoors while offering television sets for sports viewing, was to measure no more than 626 square feet. Officials there felt "blind-sided" after the reviewal process rendered a negative verdict.
"All we want to do is give people more jobs and expand the economy on Fort Myers Beach," said Stamper. "You would think that when we went through the process of getting approved, they would have told us what was needed."
But that is not the case, says Miller. The full permit and reviewal process is not available to businesses up front before they apply for a development order.
"The problem is that we can't review something if we don't have concrete documents to review at the time," he said. "Generally, consultants should be aware of the code, especially since it it the responsibility of their architects or engineers to keep up with continuing education. They should do their research to make sure that they are signing according to the code.
"Once the documents come to us, we take a look at what designs are made to ascertain whether or not it meets environmental codes, etc., then the County makes sure it meets the building codes. We can answer questions if asked, but it's up to them to do their due diligence."
Miller said the current building code book and older ones are available to them at Town Hall.
"They belong to the Town but, for research purposes, if someone wants to come in and look at the code, we can take them someplace in the building, and they can do all the research they want," he said.
Business owners that need to pay fees for every step in the process are not happy about being told about the code requirement "on the back end," say Stamper. Assorted permits fees involve land development order, planning review, electric, plumbing, heating, ventilating and air conditioning to name a few. According to Town records, The Beached Whale was charged $4,000 for the special exception process alone.
Officials at Smokin' Oyster Brewery were hoping to build its deck during this timeframe in the Beach's downtown zoning district after being granted consumption on premises privileges on Old San Carlos Boulevard and Third Street. The expansion would have allowed the restaurant to add 24 seats under a proposed constructed covered porch area/ deck extension blanketing 364 square feet on the Third Street side of its building, but that would have given the establishment 114 seats, 14 over the limit.
Businesses that want to add a fire suppression system may need to start from scratch or retro-fit a current system that is below code.
"We tell them what the requirements are, but that is something that is on the plan when we get them," said Miller. "They tell us what is existing, and we will work with them so that they don't have to start at square one again."
Fire suppression systems are not fixed costs. It depends on what system is needed, how much coverage area is needed and how many sprinkler heads need to be installed.
"There are a lot of different factors involved. Generally, the interior work can be done along with the other renovations," said Miller.
Stampler believes a sprinkler system in The Beach Whale will need a separate water line. Officials there have not yet obtained a quote to check actual cost.
"If we knew about this ahead of time, life would have been a lot easier," he said.
Miller stated the country's state building codes were born due to disaster involving fires that took place in somewhat crowded establishments and caused loss of life on the grand scale in certain communities.