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Berlin Development on Track to Outgrow Vol. Fire Department

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Senior living housing complex in process of being constructed on Berlin Mall property in spring 2021. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Berlin’s development may be getting too big for its britches from a fire safety standpoint. During the Berlin Select Board’s meeting Aug. 2, board members asked if the volunteer fire department is big enough to keep up with the large new housing complexes being built on the Berlin Mall property. The answer was, effectively, “No.”

Board Chair Justin Lawrence pointed out, “We’re about to have 500 or so apartments in the town of Berlin and there are definitely going to be things where there’s smoke detectors (and other issues),” he said, noting earlier, “It is kind of hard with a volunteer fire department.”

President of the fire department Joe Staab told the board, “I think it is clear the model we currently have is not keeping up with the development of the town. Berlin is growing immensely (…). I see Berlin as almost being like a little Williston.”

This conversation grew out of a discussion over whether the town should establish building ordinances or safety codes, but it was decided they don’t have the manpower or resources to enforce or inspect at the emerging level of need.

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Karla Nuissl, chair of the Berlin Planning Commission, weighed in via video conferencing. “Very few towns in Vermont have building codes because it is too expensive to administer,” she said, adding that Berlin is too small to support this kind of activity in her personal opinion. She agreed to bring the matter before the broader planning commission to get more input. “We have a lot of other things that would be more of a priority for the town,” she said. In addition to bringing the subject before the full planning commission, Nuissl said she could reach out to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Staab said it would be a matter of planning for the future and should include the topic of fire inspections, smoke detectors, and other fire safety measures.

Lawrence said he has consulted with Barre City and Barre Town on the subject.

Staab again pointed out that, as things stand, the town’s volunteer fire department is stagnant (as far as budget and staff size) and recruitment is challenging.

Selectman John Quinn pointed out that the town has a population of 4,000 people, and he doesn’t want to burden the landlords. 

Those present agreed to further discuss the situation as time goes on, and perhaps consider having the fire department go from a volunteer status to a municipal department.