Fire-sprinkler requirements in buildings are a contentious political issue throughout the United States. This month, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled on a legal case that revolved around the issue of whether sprinklers are required in the state when a multifamily building is remodeled. Property owner Robert MacLaurin faced off against the city of Holyoke, Mass., over the question of whether Holyoke could require MacLaurin to install sprinklers as part of a major remodel. The court's decision, published here (see: "ROBERT MacLAURIN & another vs. CITY OF HOLYOKE & others"). The Republican reported on the story here (see: "SJC clarifies Massachusetts sprinkler law in Holyoke case," by Shira Schoenberg).

The case revolves around the question of how extensive a renovation must be, in order for the local authorities to require sprinklers to be installed. "MacLaurin contends that the renovations he undertook on the buildings do not meet the statutory standard triggering the requirement that sprinklers be installed," the court wrote in its opinion. "Concluding, to the contrary, that the two buildings had been substantially rehabilitated within the meaning of the residential sprinkler provision, the city's fire chief ordered, without a hearing, that automatic sprinkler systems be installed in each building."

But the relevant law doesn't provide a bright-line standard, the court said. Accordingly, the court undertook to craft a workable definition. The Justices decided, after a review of the language, to rule that renovated properties should only be required to have sprinklers if the scope of the renovations is substantially equivalent to the construction of a new building — "in essence," the court wrote, "as good as new."

"Where the rehabilitation is suitably substantial in this regard, a corollary is that the cost of installation of automatic sprinklers ordinarily will approximate the cost of installing sprinklers in a comparable newly constructed building," the court ruled.

The record in the case doesn't establish whether MacLaurin's renovations were that extensive, the court noted, so they sent the case back to the local authorities for a determination on that point. Meanwhile, a spokesman for a local landlord organization praised the decision. ""This decision finally gives clarity about when sprinklers are needed, and when they are not," said Jason Ferenc, an attorney for the Greater Holyoke Rental Housing Association. "This clarity lessens the risk that building rehabilitation work will unexpectedly trigger a requirement to install sprinklers at an unaffordable cost."