DeKalb’s ‘Suburban’ issue of fire safety

Published

DeKalb County is concerned about a situation that could potentially affect the ability of City of DeKalb to fight a fire on property just outside city limits. City of DeKalb — which would fight a fire there if one happened — wrangled an agreement a couple years ago that might help to assess the risk. But there’s no evidence anything’s been done.

On the ground, Suburban Apartments and Estates (“Suburban”) look like part of City of DeKalb, but they’re not. The adjacent apartment complexes, on Twombly Road near Annie Glidden, lie on unincorporated land, which is DeKalb County’s jurisdiction when it comes to enforcing building codes. This means Suburban isn’t generally subject to city regulation, such as our rental inspection program, even though it’s tucked upside our border. Tenant complaints are referred to the county (typically the health department) but DeKalb County doesn’t have home rule and isn’t allowed the same level of authority for code enforcement on private property that the city has within its own jurisdiction.

Suburban’s water supply and infrastructure are completely private, said to be somewhat ancient, and subject to tenants’ complaints about drinking water quality. County board members are aware, the board’s health and human services committee having discussed “public complaints and concerns about apartment complexes” during a meeting in August 2020. This included sharing the county’s concern that the water infrastructure on the Suburban property might not allow enough water pressure to fight a fire — and if it could produce sufficient pressure, it might rupture the old pipes.

The audio of this meeting makes clear the county has to distinguish between safety and quality. It could take action if well testing turns up a hazard in the water, and that has not happened. Tenants’ complaints are about bad taste and appearance of the water, and there’s no official remedy for that.

DeKalb County suggests the cure would be annexation, but even short of that, City of DeKalb’s hands may not be completely tied. Thanks to Suburban’s solar garden project, state rules allowed the city to object to the county’s plan to approve a special permit for the project. The objection delayed permit approval temporarily, and the allowed interference resulted in a development agreement between the city and Suburban owners to address emergency access, including this provision:

[T]he owner shall maintain all on-site water infrastructure, wells, storage, water mains, hydrants and related equipment in good and operable condition. Owner will exercise all hydrants and flush all mains not less than three times a year.

City of DeKalb Resolution 2018-140, passed October 22, 2018

The agreement is a proper step in helping to ensure an effective emergency response where the rental inspection program can’t go. Unfortunately, a Freedom of Information request yielded zero documentation of city follow up to ensure Suburban is holding up its end.

Likewise, though he otherwise seems well-versed in tenants’ issues with Suburban, Mayor Barnes told me he didn’t know about the agreement. This brings us to the problem of institutional knowledge. City of DeKalb has very little. My discovery of the potential fire safety issue via meeting audio was an accident, and only because I was present when the development agreement was approved was I aware of it. I believe every city administrator who would have known about the fire safety concerns and about the development agreement are long gone.

Click on this link to access the audio record of the county meeting. The apartment discussion starts at 24:00 and ends about 53:00.