If you live in Baltimore, your cookout is probably against the law. So says City Councilman Warren Branch (13th District). On Oct. 6, Branch introduced a bill to add penalties for violating this law—a $500 fine for "open cooking devices."
"People cooking on the porch, people cooking on the sidewalk, which can be a real hazard," Branch told the council. "We did research and found there is a law on the books, but it is not enforced."
And so it isn’t.
A Remington resident told of a neighbor who called 311 recently about an open fire in a neighbor's back yard. They were, she says, "told by a nasty operator that of course it was legal."
But no, it isn't.
Baltimore code (308.1.4) says "Charcoal burners and other open-flame cooking devices shall not be operated on combustible balconies or within 10 feet (3048 mm) of any combustible construction or property line."
Read that carefully: "or within 10 feet of any . . . property line" would appear to prohibit any kind of lit grill on any property less than 20 feet wide. In Baltimore, most residences are narrower than that, meaning there would be no place on the property that is 10 feet from an adjacent property.
Baltimore's fire codes are based on the International Fire Code. The IFC section does not say "property line," but "combustible construction." It also gives three exceptions: For "one and two-family dwellings," for decks protected by sprinkler systems, and for gas grills with fuel capacities under two pounds.
The Baltimore code says "exceptions omitted."
Branch says Ellwood Park Community Association President Helen Vello brought the issue to him. "In her community they have porch fronts . . . or they have them [cookouts] on the sidewalk. And she calls it in to the fire marshal," he says. "She wasn't getting a lot of responses."
Branch took up the cause. He says a fire inspector told him that the exceptions to the 10-foot rule were omitted in 2012. But the fire department never got the memo.
"You know what the big surprise was to all of us? When I sat down with the [fire] majors . . . none of them had ever heard of it before," Branch says. "They didn’t know how to deal with the situation when it came to enforcement."
That is because, although the code prohibits grilling on your deck or within 10 feet of the property line, there is no penalty for violating it.
Branch says one woman in his district used to complain about a neighbor grilling on her covered porch. The neighbor insisted it was safe and legal, and to drive home the point she wore her fire department dispatcher's uniform while grilling, Branch says.
It took a squad of firefighters to convince her otherwise, Branch says.
City Paper called a fire inspector and asked about the law. The inspector confidently stated that, of course you may grill in your backyard, no matter how wide your property is. You just need to be 10 feet from the house. He said the sidewalk issue was different: "That's public property."
And grilling on your rooftop deck? Strictly verboten, he said. Then he asked not to be quoted.
Calls to the chief's office for a quotable person got us routed back to the fire marshal. We left a message for him.
Branch says nobody ought to panic.
"What we're doing is we're gonna amend it in committee to whereby it fits everybody’s district," Branch says. "The way it's situated now they can't have cookouts on those decks. You have a lot of people who made investments in the city with those decks.
We're going to amend it maybe so it's just closed decks."
He says there will be committee meetings and workshops wherein the fire professionals and the neighborhood people can get together and discuss all this rationally. These should happen after the reports on his bill come back on Nov. 9, he says.
"The landscape in my district is a lot different from Fells Point or down there in Fort McHenry and stuff like that," Branch says. "People who invested all that money and they realize they can't have a cookout on their deck . . . that's not going to go over well."