Farewell to wood fireplaces

Remodels would fall under new ordinance
Gilroy – Homeowners looking to remodel should work around their wood-burning fireplaces or stoves unless they are willing to replace them with a more eco-friendly heating source.

City Councilmen have approved preliminary language for a new ordinance that will require residents to install pellet-fueled wood heaters, gas fireplaces, or some other federally approved heating device when home renovations affect the size or shape of a wood-burning model.

New homes will only be allowed to have gas fireplaces or wood-burning models approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The ordinance would not affect commercial establishments such as pizza kitchens that have wood-burning fireplaces.

The law’s original wording had worried many homeowners, who feared that minor remodeling could lead to major costs.

Under the language first proposed in the fall, a resident would have to replace their wood-burning fireplace if they remodel any part of the wall in which it is situated. The new wording only requires a cleaner substitute if plans affect the size or shape of the fireplace.

“If you make it so that you’re going to put in a door and all of a sudden you have to replace the fireplace, they may not do it at all,” said Councilman Craig Gartman. “We didn’t want something that would prohibit people from going through the permitting process.”

Mayor Al Pinheiro initially questioned the rationale of making the ordinance “less strict,” but ultimately agreed with building officials and fellow councilmen.

“If you’re not messing with the fireplace,” he reasoned, “it’s not so fair to require the owner to replace it.”

Lisa Jensema, the city’s environmental programs coordinator, said the law would have “little impact” on developers and contractors because they generally install gas fireplaces. State law prohibits the sale of non-EPA fireplaces or stoves, she said, adding that the ordinance would prevent people from shopping out of state for cheaper wood-burning models.

“This ordinance is moving in the right direction,” agreed Councilman Charles Morales. “It will improve respiratory problems in schools and among young children.”

Wood-burning appliances emit considerable levels of particulate matter, a harmful substance the EPA has linked to aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis and a host of other lung-related problems, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Very small particulate matter – called PM10 because it measures 10 micrometers or less in diameter – is especially harmful because it is easily inhaled and trapped in the lungs. The harmful substance becomes especially widespread during winter and around the holidays, when people use their fireplaces more frequently.

During last week’s cold spell, air quality in Gilroy ranged between “moderate” and “unhealthy,” according to the air quality management district.

Gilroy would join 32 other cities in the bay area with similar laws if leaders give final approval in February.

“The way that we passed [the ordinance], I think it puts some good controls in place,” Gartman said. “We need to take a look at our air quality and do the best we can to try to control the emissions. I think this is a step in the right direction.”

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