A state agency failed to present enough evidence to justify requiring all new homes bigger than 4,500 square feet to include fire sprinklers, a Minnesota Appeals Court panel decided Tuesday.
The three judges unanimously overturned the state Department of Labor and Industry’s rule.
“After making a careful and searching inquiry of the record, we conclude that the 4,500-square-foot threshold for one-family dwellings is arbitrary and not supported by substantial evidence in the record,” the ruling said. “Based upon precedent from our Supreme Court, there must be a ‘reasoned determination’ as to why particular standards were chosen in an administrative rule. … Because the record does not include evidence of any reasoned determination to indefinitely exempt new one-family dwellings under 4,500 square feet, the sprinkler rule must be declared invalid.”
Fire chiefs and others have lobbied the Minnesota Legislature to require sprinklers in homes, saying they can save lives. Eventually, chiefs agreed to at least require them for larger homes. When lawmakers could not pass that requirement, the Department of Labor and Industry began the process of taking action itself.
The ruling pleased the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, which brought the lawsuit with backing from other construction and real estate groups.
“Today’s decision is a victory for all Minnesotans who are looking to buy a new home,” association Executive Director David Siegel said. “The sprinkler mandate was unnecessarily impacting the housing market and home ownership access for thousands of Minnesotans.”
Siegel said Minnesota homes are among the country’s safest.
“The sprinkler mandate would not have changed that safety record, but it would have made homes more expensive for Minnesota families,” Siegel said. “The court’s decision to invalidate the sprinkler rule confirms what the public, legislature, and code experts have overwhelmingly stated all along, the sprinkler mandate is arbitrary and not supported.”
The department did not immediately comment on the ruling.
The judges said that previous court opinions required sections of the building code that contained the sprinkler rule “must be based on the application of scientific principles, approved tests and professional judgment.”
The 4,500-square-foot limit was arbitrary, they said, according to evidence the department presented.
A requirement that all two-family homes require sprinklers contradicted the department’s decision that single-family homes smaller than 4,500 square feet do not need them, the judges wrote.
Nothing in the ruling indicated that the court would have overturned a rule requiring all single-family homes to have sprinklers.
“While we can appreciate (the department’s) concern with balancing the life-safety benefits of sprinkler systems with increased installation costs, the record simply does not contain a reasoned explanation as to how (the department) determined that an indefinite exception for all one-family dwellings under 4,500 square feet strikes that balance,” the ruling said.
Fire chiefs told a public hearing on the issue that they support sprinklers in all homes.
“We are mindful today that we are declaring a rule adopted by an administrative agency of the state invalid,” the judges said. “We do not do so lightly, but rather thoughtfully and unanimously. Nevertheless, we are bound to apply the law.”
Besides not adequately proving the 4,500-square-foot requirement, the judges said the department also violated state law by not adequately looking into the cost to small businesses and cities of implementing the rule.