Fire code and grinch-like tip force relocation of tree


Knight Crier

This picture shows the Christmas tree North Penn has displayed in years past.

Knight Crier

TOWAMENCIN – It’s not just your imagination. With the holiday break now just days away, yes, the North Penn High School Christmas tree has been un-trimmed in anticipation of its relocation to outside the K-pod concourse. Literally, outside.

Late in the afternoon of Friday, December 6, the school Christmas tree, a majestic, twelve foot tall, fresh cut Douglass Fir that helps North Penn High School symbolically usher in the holiday season, was erected in the auditorium lobby. At 3:21pm on the same day, an email had been sent from Towamencin Township to NPSD  Manager of Support Services, John Strobel, notifying him that a concerned citizen had reported to the township that NPHS had a live tree on display, something that according to section 806.1.1 of a 2009 fire code, is prohibited. And just like that, an anonymous Grinch had done his or her best to steal Christmas.

By order of the fire marshal and code enforcement office, North Penn High School will have to comply with the edict. According to the policy, which is part of a larger ordinance limiting “decorative vegetation,”  in order to keep the tree on display inside, it would have to be fireproofed and in an area with a sprinkler system. Of course when dealing with a tree of that magnitude, there are not a lot of alternate placements within the school.

Because North Penn High School is an educational facility, certain codes that might not apply in all buildings are enforced in schools.

“By the building code a school is classified as an E (education) occupancy class, which prohibits natural cut trees.  If the school was protected 100% by a sprinkler system and the tree met additional flame resistance requirements it would be allowed; however that is not the case here,” explained Towamencin Township Code Enforcement Officer William Webb.

While certainly not thrilled about these developments, NPHS Principal Burt Hynes certainly knows that sometimes legislation dictates decisions that have to be made within the school.

“We are going to comply with the township order. It is a shame that an obscure fire code will prevent the high school from having a cut tree in the main lobby,” stated Hynes.

The tree has become a tradition, decorated by the  Student Government Association and annually put on display for all who enter through the main entrance of the building.

“Every year, the SGA has put up a Christmas tree in the main lobby of the building. For a long time, we had an artificial tree, but it fell into disrepair.  We made the decision a few years ago to put a natural tree in the lobby, and it’s been very well received. Fortunately, we’ve had our trees donated or discounted.  Our students came in on an off day and gave several hours of their time to decorate the tree so the entire school community could enjoy it for two full weeks leading up to winter break,” explained Kyle Berger, Student Government Co-adviser.

As frustrating as this decision is for those involved, oftentimes policies such as this one relating to live vegetation spring from prior incidents.

“It is my responsibility to act on every call that comes in with regards to potential code violations.  After we receive information we do an investigation and make a decision if the call was factual or frivolous.  The township receives a lot of frivolous complaints generally dealing with neighbors that do not get along.  Once we confirm the violation we contact the property owner and then subsequently issue a formal notice of violation and correction order.   In this case I reached out to John Strobel to address the matter but still issued a formal notice and correction order. Unfortunately, things that make sense to many of us are a cause for concern through the code.  Many times these codes are added because of a fatality or a court proceeding,” Webb added.

Of course, legalities and compliance aside, the other question that remains is who would have, in the short span of time on Friday, December 6, actually felt it necessary to report to the township that the school was potentially violating this code- an issue that certainly could have been addressed to a building level administrator first. Whatever the motivation behind that report, the issue now is something with which the school will deal.

According to Hynes, the real shame of the situation is that the annual Christmas tree in that location is really very good for the school climate at this time of year.

“It puts people in a positive spirit. There’s a sense of friendliness and good will fostered by the presence of appropriate decorations,” Hynes added.

As anyone who has decorated a Christmas tree in his or her own home could likely ascertain, moving the tree in order to comply with the code is no small task.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to move the tree after all of the effort that our students put into it. From carrying the tree into the building, to putting it in the stand – twice, thanks to an untimely toppling – and decorating it, it was a total team effort of several hours. This is a 12-foot tree, so it’s not exactly easily moved,” Berger noted.

The tree will remain on display in its new location through next week.