You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 3:10 p.m.

Ann Arbor issues first fine for violation of couch ban ordinance

By Cindy Heflin

The City of Ann Arbor has issued the first fine for violation of its ordinance banning upholstered furniture on porches.

The fine comes as the result of a fire on the porch of The Black Elk Cooperative house, 902 Baldwin Ave., Oct. 1. The fire started when something hot, possibly ash from a cigarette, fell between the arm and cushion of a couch on the porch, fire investigators said.


The Black Elk house at 902 Baldwin Ave. in Ann Arbor.

Photo from

The cooperative, made up of the residents of the house, admitted violating the ordinance and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine by Jan. 31, said Shryl Samborn, deputy court administrator for 15th District Court in Ann Arbor.

Had the fire not been quickly extinguished, it could have spread to the inside of the house and possibly trapped the residents inside, fire officials said at the time.

Ann Arbor Fire Marshal Kathleen Chamberlain said the case is important because it shows the city is serious about enforcing the ban and eliminating the risks posed by upholstered furniture on couches.

“The life safety is the No. 1 issue because lives aren’t replaceable,” she said. Property damage and the significant expense of emergency services are secondary concerns, she said.

The ordinance was passed following the death of 22-year-old Renden LeMasters in a house fire that started on a porch in April 2010.

Erik Lipson, general manager of the Inter-cooperative Council, a student-owned co-op that runs 19 houses, including the Black Elk house, said the members understand the importance of fire safety and following the ordinance.

“The members took this very seriously and they have taken a lot of efforts to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “I think they realized they were very lucky.”

The Inter-cooperative Council is the oldest student-owned cooperative in the United States, Lipson said. The Black Elk Cooperative includes about 20 members, he said.

A jogger spotted the fire on the porch of the Black Elk house shortly after 7:30 a.m. Oct. 1. He alerted other passers-by, who extinguished the fire with a garden hose.


Lets Get Real

Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 6:40 p.m.

So what is the definition of "upholstered furniture?" I recently visited a senior living center that had the most beautiful synthetic wicker sectional furniture - specifically made for outdoors - upholstered with cushions in fabulous fabrics designed for outdoors. Perhaps we should invoke a law that the poor senior citizens could burn to death in the upholstered furniture on their porch and patio should one of the residents go outdoors to smoke - since it is prohibited inside. Is upholstered - a cushion on a molded plastic chair? Is upholstered the cushions that are designed for outdoor metal strap chairs to a dining set? Is upholstered the cushions on a cedar or pine chair or bench? Is upholstered wicker furniture in a screened area: porch, boat house, tent? Better watch those designers and event planners who now decorate spaces to resemble outdoor living rooms in permanent (your yard, porch, pation, deck, etc.) or temporary spaces (i.e. for weddings, fund raisers, etc. in tents, pergolas, gazebos? Have I made my point yet? Like so many of the "ordinaces" left to interpretation of the enforcer, it depends who, influence, affluence, and likability of the offender on how it is applied. The government shall decide how you live, whether you are a friend or a foe - depending on your political affiliation and amount of contribution to the (their) cause. Corruption, greed - all in the name of "protecting us" from ourselves.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 11:25 a.m.

A quick survey of the ICC website shows most units with photos of porches also have upholstered sofas. While smoking is banned inside, smokers are practically invited to light up on the porch. Seems ironic...


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 7:14 p.m.

Will, fyi, most of the pictures on the ICC website are a touch outdated. I would bet that almost all the pictures of coops on the website were posted before the ban on upholstered couches was even written.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 3 a.m.

I think it's interesting that the first big fine for this ordinance goes to a minority owned and run entity. Not that there aren't e.g. Greek houses which are in violation or even a few just plain ole residences throughout town. Just has to be the Black Elks. Just saying. And no, I am not black.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 3:22 a.m.

It's hard for me to tell if you are being sarcastic. If not, no, it is not a black fraternity/sorority. It is a vegetarian co-op: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> .


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 2:34 a.m.

I am a member of Black Elk Cooperative House. I would again like to thank the passersby who put out the fire, as well as the emergency responders who came to our aid. This includes Kathleen Chamberlain. Thank you for educating us about how to keep ourselves safe. I respect the City's decision to put this ban into affect. To everyone who still has a couch on their porch, please comply with the ordinance. We were all fast asleep when this fire started at 7:30 in the morning. A cigarette butt can smolder in upholstered furniture for several hours before it finally catches fire. This is most likely what happened to us. Once these fires start it is frightening how quickly they grow and spread. If just a couple more minutes had gone by before our fire was put out our house would have caught fire, and we would all have still been asleep. I also agree with evdoc that it is unfortunate that the first fine under this ordinance was issued after a fire had already taken place. Somewhat ironically, the day before the fire we received a notice from the City to remove a dresser that was sitting on the side of our driveway. We removed the dresser the same day. If we had also been warned to remove the couch I am confident that we would have removed it as soon as we were able. Even so, we were at fault for having upholstered furniture on our porch. I can only hope that others will learn from our mistake. We narrowly escaped a tragedy.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 3:39 a.m.

I also in no way mean to imply that we were unaware of the ordinance. What I mean is that we should have been fined earlier, before a fire. I apologize if my third paragraph came across disrespectfully.


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 11:11 p.m.

Hope it's not the last fine issued. There will likely be other violators.

Wolf's Bane

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 11:14 p.m.

I see violators EVERYDAY!

City Confidential

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 9:36 p.m.

Would those of you who think this is a silly law like to look into Renden LeMaster's parents' faces and say that again? Want to make those comments to the neighbors who witnessed Mr. LeMaster's emerge, on fire, from that house? Fires are more likely to get out of control on this type of furniture on porches because people often don't notice it until it is out of control. People die in these fires. Why are you so worked up about the right to have plush furniture on porches anyway? What's wrong with safer places to sit? Cedar doesn't burst into flame when ashes fall onto it, but fabric obviously does. Upholstery is not only a fire danger, but it also gets wet and stinky, offers a place for rodents to nest and bedbugs to thrive. When it's your kid who dies, maybe you'll think again about how important it is that people get to have wet, bug infested couches on their porches.


Wed, Jan 18, 2012 : 3:07 p.m.

The LeMaster fire has not been proven to have been caused by the couch on the porch.


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 11:02 p.m.

Oh boy... Yes, I would tell them this is a silly law. They shouldn't be offended by that...

Angry Moderate

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 10:09 p.m.

Nice emotional appeal, but are you going to ban everything that someone has ever died from?


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 9:18 p.m.

So upholstered furniture is banned, but the long bench on the porch that is made of cedar (which when on fire the oils come out and flame up like crazy) is no problem? Anyone on the council ever see cedar burn?


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 9:57 p.m.

That will get city council all fired up. No more cedar benches, idling cars, christmas tree pickups, leaves out of the streets, etc. Tear the city down. Let's all live in tents. As long as we can make it to the football games, everything will be ok.


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 8:59 p.m.

&quot;Ann Arbor Fire Marshal Kathleen Chamberlain said the case is important because it shows the city is serious about enforcing the ban and eliminating the risks posed by upholstered furniture on couches.&quot; Since they gave the fine as a result of a fire, how does this show that the city is serious about enforcing the ban? If this fire engulfed the house and there were injuries or even deaths, wouldn't people be asking why this certain co-op didn't receive a fine before the fire even occurred? Isn't that the point of the ban? You can't give a fine after-the-fact and then claim you are serious about enforcing the ban when its purpose is to be preventative in the first place.


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

Never mind the Domino Theory potential for a fire in the arm of a couch spreading to the cushion, then the back, then the arm, then the porch, then the front door, then the living room and ultimately trapping the hapless residents inside. That fire could just as conceivably have spread all the way to Chicago, immolating vast swathes of the Midwest, sending up a shower of superheated poisonous gases and accelerating global warming enough to bring the end of civilization as we know it. Thank goodness the City of Ann Arbor ordinance department was on duty. Now, if only they could do something about idling cars and pedestrian walkways.

Homeland Conspiracy

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 10:36 p.m.

oh the humanity...oh the humanity


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 8:33 p.m.

What about the upholstered furniture in the house. It can't catch on fire?


Tue, Jan 17, 2012 : 8:27 p.m.

Oh thank goodness; we are being saved from ourselves..............