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Editorial: Dayton is on the wrong side of sprinklers

Would Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton really scrap nearly $1 billion of infrastructure and other projects of public benefit to Minnesotans across the state? It seems doubtful the governor would really go as far as vetoing the bonding bill, which is the main focus of legislative sessions held during even-numbered years like this one. But that’s precisely what Dayton threatened to do Monday over, of all things, a state law requiring sprinkler systems in new homes 4,500 square feet or larger. Lawmakers want to overturn the state requirement. Dayton wants it left on the books. He apparently really wants it left on the books.

But Dayton is on the wrong side of this sprinkler standoff, and not only because his threat of a veto jeopardizes all the public good — including hundreds, perhaps thousands, of jobs; improved amenities across the state; and stronger Minnesota communities — that comes from the every-other-year bonding bills.

Sprinklers quickly douse flames, no question about that; and more power to anyone building a new home who chooses to include them. But the government requiring it? That feels like a government reaching too far — and intruding on private-property rights. Lawmakers looking to repeal the requirement see that clearly.

Also, sprinkler systems aren’t cheap, and a requirement to have them promises to be a boon only to people who install and maintain them and to the government if it chooses to conduct annual inspections with inspection fees. The cost of installation, according to the Builders Association of Minnesota, is $2.30 per square foot. So putting a system into a new, 4,500-square-foot home would cost $10,350. And if that new home is in a rural setting without access to municipal water the cost jumps to $3.72 per square foot, or $16,740. And then there’s regular, ongoing maintenance to make sure the system doesn’t fail, which would cause untold losses from water damage.

Government regulations related to homebuilding already are growing uncomfortably costly in Minnesota, discouraging development and growth. A decade and a half ago, regulatory costs were 10 percent of the final price of building a home. Today, those costs are 25 percent. Minnesota already has among the most-burdensome homebuilding and land-development regulations in the country. And that’s without a sprinkler mandate lawmakers now are so rightly trying to undo.

Are sprinkler systems even needed? Minnesota’s law requiring all new homes to have interconnected, hardwired, battery-backed smoke detectors throughout dwellings already has “resulted in the disappearance of fire deaths altogether in new homes in Minnesota,” Nick Olson, president of the Arrowhead Builders Association, wrote in February in the Duluth News Tribune. The focus of our state and fire officials would be better placed on existing homes, especially older homes and rentals, to make sure they have working smoke detectors with fresh batteries.

Rather than threatening another veto — at least twice previously Dayton has vetoed measures that would have headed off the mandate and left sprinkler-installation decisions where they belonged: with homeowners — the governor can stand with contractors, families looking to build homes and others on the side of sensible, and not burdensome, building requirements.

And he can stop using the bonding bill as a political pawn, jeopardizing its every-other-year statewide benefits.

— Duluth News Tribune