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Businesses aim to tweak code banning cut trees in public areas

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    Honolulu’s fire code bans displaying cut trees in large public gathering places. Restaurateurs Marion and Don Murphy will put up an artificial 12-foot Christmas tree at Murphy’s Bar & Grill this year instead of the natural 12-footer Murphy’s has displayed for nearly three decades.

A group of Honolulu restaurateurs, hoteliers and merchants wants to change a long-standing but apparently little-known section of the Honolulu Fire Code that bars the display of cut trees, including Christmas trees, in large public gathering places.

The Honolulu City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to give the second of three approvals to Bill 56, the latest version of the Honolulu Fire Code, but with an amendment that makes it legal for cut trees to be on display in public assembly areas provided they are treated with a fire retardant. The measure now goes back to the Council Public Health, Safety and Welfare Committee for more deliberation.

Fire Battalion Chief Terry Seelig said the Christmas tree prohibition in public assembly areas is part of the Honolulu Fire Code adopted by the Council in 2012, and that it had been in place for years before that.

Businesses have been issued notices of violation over the years, but no actual citations involving any fines, Seelig said. Typically, by the time inspectors return to a business to see whether a violation still exists, Christmas is over, and the trees have already been removed, he said.

Among those who want the exemption is restaurateur Don Murphy. A live 12-foot Christmas tree has greeted customers at Murphy’s Bar & Grill each holiday season for the past 28 years.

Regulars have even made it a tradition to pose and take pictures with the Murphy’s tree annually, Murphy told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser this week.

Murphy said his wife, Marion, makes the ornaments for the tree by hand. “People love it. They come in and get the smell of Christmas,” he said. In an effort to make sure he doesn’t get caught without any type of tree this year, he’s ordered a $2,800 artificial 12-footer from the mainland.

Despite failing to see how a live tree can pose a health hazard, Murphy said he will abide by whatever the law tells him to do. “But it’s a sad thing when our world is getting too sterile and vanilla.”

The bill defines a place of public assembly as a place where 50 or more people gather for “deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation or similar uses.” That includes auditoriums, courtrooms, university classrooms that seat 50 or more, conference rooms, exhibition halls, movie theaters, passenger stations, mortuaries, places of worship, assembly halls, ballrooms, museums and bowling alleys.

Christmas trees are also not allowed in hotels, dormitories and educational facilities.

In addition, they are not permitted in a host of other occupancy classifications, unless they are “balled,” or contain live roots surrounded by dirt.

The ban does not apply to outdoor areas away from structures.

Among those who submitted testimony in support of the exemption Wednesday were representatives from the Chinatown Merchants Association, Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association and other hotel industry officials.

Jared Higashi, government and community affairs director for the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said, “It is and has been a tradition to have these natural, cut Christmas trees in our hotel lobbies, our restaurants, our country clubs. It is a tradition that provides our patrons a quality service from our … members.”

Gayle Miyashiro of the Waikiki Resort Hotel said her establishment put up an artificial tree for the first time last year. “You should’ve heard the complaints we got,” she said. “For many people the hotel becomes their home away from home, and the added touch of a live Christmas tree truly advances their tropical Christmas vacation.”

Seelig, however, told the Star-Advertiser that the exemption being put forth by the Christmas tree advocates would not help those who want live trees in the lobbies of hotels because they do not fall under the category of places of assembly.

Also speaking at Wednesday’s meeting was Becky Harrison, marketing director for the nonprofit Habilitat, who said the sale of live Christmas trees is the substance abuse treatment program’s major fundraiser. “If this bill doesn’t pass, we’ll lose a lot of funding and possibly not be able to help some people who need our help,” Harrison said.

The Honolulu Fire Code is based on the Hawaii State Fire Code adopted by the Legislature in 2010. And the state code is based on the National Fire Protection Association’s code, Seelig said.

Cut trees, by nature, are highly combustible because they begin to dry immediately, Seelig said. As for the idea of spraying fire retardants on the trees, scientific evidence to date has been inconclusive on its effectiveness.

In the early 1990s someone threw a Molotov cocktail inside the lobby of a Kuhio Avenue hotel, causing a live Christmas tree to catch fire and resulting in a blaze that caused extensive damage, even though the building contained a fire sprinkler system, Seelig said.

Plastic trees are less combustible because they need to adhere to federal manufacturing standards that require them to burn slower and reduce the spread of flames.

Seelig urged Council members to trust fire officials to determine an acceptable level of safety.

Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who proposed the change to allow trees, said he’s been disappointed that the indoor Christmas tree displays at Honolulu Hale now allow only plastic trees as a result of the fire code.

“Really,” Anderson said, “what is the holiday season without real, live Christmas trees?”

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