Northampton fire chief bars music in Bombyx until sprinklers installed

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-20-2023 9:41 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The city’s fire chief, Jon Davine, has ordered the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity to cease all its indoor music events until an automatic sprinkler system is installed in the center’s sanctuary, where concerts are held.

The order comes a week after the department’s fire prevention officer, Capt. Mark Curtin, came to the Florence center unannounced and, after inspecting the sanctuary, told Bombyx Executive Director Cassandra Holden he was ordering all indoor music events immediately shut down.

According to a letter that Davine sent Friday to Holden, Curtin, who was accompanied by Kevin Ross from the city’s Building Department, came in response to “noise complaints from neighboring properties.”

Davine said an inspection of the sanctuary and a review of aspects of live music presentations, such as the occasional sale of alcohol, led him to determine that Bombyx is considered a nightclub — and as such must have an automatic sprinkler system in place for safety reasons, under a state law known as Section 26G ½.

In his letter, Davine said he is prohibiting all events “that constitute a nightclub, dance hall, discotheque, bar or similar entertainment purposes inside the premises” until a sprinkler system is installed and then inspected by the Fire Department.

Davine’s order followed a meeting Thursday between Holden and other Bombyx staff with officials from a number of city departments. Alan Wolf, chief of staff for Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, characterized that meeting both as an effort to determine if Bombyx was operating safely and to find a way for Holden “to be able to keep doing what she’s been doing.”

“We all want [Bombyx] to succeed,” Wolf said.

In the letter Davine sent to Bombyx officials, the fire chief’ noted his decision can be appealed to the Massachusetts Fire Safety Commission and Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board.

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Thursday’s meeting also followed a tumultuous week for Bombyx staff, who in an interview with the Gazette, and in a letter they sent to city officials, said they were bewildered by Curtin’s order because they had previously shared all their plans with city building inspector Jonathan Flagg and city planner Carolyn Misch — both of whom had approved what they’d done, Bombyx said.

In an email Friday to the Gazette, Holden wrote that after getting Davine’s “cease and desist” order, she and other staff are “Talking with our lawyer later this afternoon. Mapping out a path forward. We can share something this evening or tomorrow morning.”

The Bombyx Center is located in Florence’s historic Congregational Church, whose parishioners continue to use the sanctuary. The center is also home to the Beit Ahavah Reform Synagogue and the Cloverdale Preschool, while numerous other local groups, such as the Young@Heart Chorus, use the facility on a regular basis.

Since taking over management of the property in the fall of 2021, the Bombyx Center, a nonprofit group, has also opened the facility for art exhibits, public talks, educational workshops and other events, including private functions such as memorial services.

At the same time, especially since the worst of the pandemic ended in late winter 2022, Bombyx has become an important part of the local music scene, offering concerts most weekends and during the week that range from jazz to folk to blues to classical music, as well as a variety of international music.

Just in the coming week, the center has shows scheduled for this weekend and May 26-27 that will need to be moved or postponed; some might be able to move outdoors to the center’s lawn. Tonight’s (May 20) show, by indie pop musician Brian Fennell, who performs under the name SYML, has been moved to Race Street Live at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, and the May 21 concert, by the classical music ensemble Balourdet Quartet, has been shifted to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton.

A two-day music event called “Collider! Fest” that had been scheduled for Bombyx May 12-13 was canceled last week following the initial shutdown order from Curtin.

Earlier this week, Bombyx staff told the Gazette they view their operation as more akin to 33 Hawley, the downtown space operated by the Northampton Community Arts Trust. “We’re a community arts and cultural center that also hosts live music,” said Elizabeth Dunaway, head of Bombyx’s board of directors. “We’re not a nightclub.”

However, Davine cited audiences of over 300 people at some Bombyx concerts, and wheels added to church pews that enable some of them to be moved to allow space for dancing, as factors that do make the center fall under the definition of a nightclub.

Yet Wolf acknowledged a strange discrepancy in the state’s laws that exempts religious institutions from needing sprinklers. Under that standard, he agreed, 300 parishioners could be in the Bombyx sanctuary, a choir could be singing with accompaniment by a string quartet, and they’d be in compliance with the law.

In a statement, Sciarra said the safety of people attending events in Northampton “is of utmost importance,” and as such she agreed with the fire chief’s decision.

And while praising Bombyx for its programming, the mayor said the center’s responsibility was “to adhere to all safety codes … and it appears that city regulators and Bombyx’s own consultants informed them about the necessity of fire safety equipment to function as a music venue.”

However, Sciarra also said she wants to help the center finance the installation of a sprinkler system, in part by allowing them to repurpose a $79,000 city grant that Bombyx received for other renovations.

Wolf said the center may also be able to tap some Community Preservation Act funds in the city for a sprinkler system, since the Florence church is a historic building that dates to the 1860s.

There will be some additional meetings next week, Wolf added, between fire and building departments to review state laws and codes to try and get a better sense of what activities can take place at the center.

 

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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