Is a Balcony Garden Against the Fire Code?

Posted on May 24 2011 - 2:55am by Mike Lieberman

When I had my fire escape garden in NYC, I knew that it was technically against the fire code (but J-walking is illegal too and no one ever gets busted). Now that I’ve been in LA for over a year, I’ve been told that a balcony garden is against the fire code too.

Last week a building inspector came by and said that it was a fire code to have anything on the balcony. I asked what the name of the code was, so I could research it. He didn’t know, but just said it was an “open zoning” thing.

I find it hard to believe considering people in LA have everything from bikes to barbecues on their balconies. Instead of just saying ok and taking everything down, I called the local fire department to inquire. If it really was a fire hazard, I’d want to remove it.

Some of the local firemen were kind enough to come by my apartment to check out the balcony to see if it was indeed a hazard. After inspecting, they said that it wasn’t

My only other guess is that it could be a building safety code violation, but the inspector said fire code.

Does anyone know anything about this?

52 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. T R May 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm -

    Doesn’t look like your garden is blocking any fire exit.  You can still get down the stairs and there is a clearly visible walkway through the center of the balcony.  I’d suggest asking the inspector about the grills and bikes etc. if he gives you any more grief.  Yeah, passive aggressive, I know.  It’s probably more of an aesthetic thing for this person anyway.

  2. Jecka May 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm -

    It may be different in California, but I know that there are federal regulations for the width of an aisle way and hall way to be deemed safe for fire evacuation, and I believe it’s 3 feet. If your plants make the unobstructed part of your balcony (the walkable part) less than that, it’s against the law.

  3. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm -

    I did ask him about bikes and grills. He said all of that wasn’t allowed. Hard to believe since everyone has things on them.

  4. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm -

    What law? Fire code? He told me fire code. I brought firemen in, they checked it out and looked up the code and couldn’t find anything. So not sure what I should even be looking into.

  5. Patgaz May 24, 2011 at 3:22 pm -

    Had this happen to me in Houston.  Fire marshall gave me notice and I had to move my plants. 

  6. Caitlin May 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm -

    Can you get it in writing from the fire dept? That your balcony poses no hazard?

  7. Chris May 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm -

    If he didn’t actually ask you to remove the plants then he might just be covering his ass. This way if something did happen he could say he told you it was against a code.

  8. Cyndi Hebert May 24, 2011 at 3:55 pm -

    What does your lease say?  Is he an inspector for the apartment complex, or another agency?  It may have nothing to do with any ‘code’ other than the apartments….. maybe?

  9. Jecka May 24, 2011 at 4:25 pm -

    It is against a code. The LA fire code is online and I looked it up. There can be absolutely nothing – bbq’s, pots, plants, bikes, shelves, chairs, tables, etc. – on balconies or fire escapes (or in halls that are meant to be “used in egress”, aka escape routes).

  10. Brucer Goff May 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm -

    Hey Jecka

    Your correct its the exit system issue.  And yes many people have bikes etc but since Mike has ‘pot’s’ that are stationary he got nabbed.  IF it was just a balcony  without being an exit they could not say anything.  

  11. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm -

    Thanks for looking that up.
    That’s the thing that part of the balcony is not an exit. You don’t have to cross through it in order to get out. So I don’t believe it’s an egress. The fire department came and saw it and didn’t see anything wrong. They also went back and looked up the code. If I had to go through that walkway, I could see it being a hazard, but that’s not necessary.

  12. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm -

    Were they off to the side or in the walkway to get into and out of the place?

  13. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 5:32 pm -

    Looking into my lease now…

  14. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm -

    I don’t think it’s an escape route. I could be totally wrong on that, but I’m not going to do anything until I have to. At which point, I’ll bring the fire department back into it.

  15. Patgaz May 24, 2011 at 6:38 pm -

    FB & here.. they were lined up just like yours.  plenty of space for someone to walk through/around, so i thought. 

  16. Patgaz May 24, 2011 at 6:40 pm -

    my guess is all those chairs and stuff  your neighbor has is also in violation..

  17. Mary C. May 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm -

    Yeah that’s a good idea. Just check that it doesn’t explicitly prohibit storing anything on that balcony.
    Did the inspector take any action like serve a notice to the property owner or manager?
    Or was it an insurance inspector? That later would be a bigger problem. Many property insurance companies will give the policy holder a discount on their premiums if one of their inspectors is permitted to check the property for violations or any conditions they deem unsafe. If  the inspector finds issues they deny the discount until the policy holder has the situation fixed. Your landlord wouldn’t appreciate losing his insurance discount….

  18. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm -

    Yes he said everything was in violation, but nothing has done about it yet. Thanks for the info.

  19. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 8:44 pm -

    It wasn’t an insurance inspector. There has been no follow-up yet.

  20. Guliegirl May 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm -

    Did your neighbors complain about it?   Maybe a  neighbor called the building inspector? 

  21. Mike Lieberman May 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm -

    It was a pre-scheduled inspection. The apartments across the way had them the week before.

  22. Cyndi Hebert May 24, 2011 at 9:20 pm -

    Insurance inspectors can have a ‘code’ all of their own.  My parents have a wood burning stove outside on a screened porch.  Properly piped out a metal roof, but it’s 21″ away from the outside wall of the home versus their 24″ requirement.  Mind you that outside wall they had a problem with is the ‘rock’ fireplace chimney … face/palm

  23. Psxkeeling May 25, 2011 at 10:56 am -

    Sounds like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed…or wanted to have a power trip. Looking at the lease is a good idea.

  24. Guliegirl May 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm -

    oops I replied in the wrong spot yesterday  ..  the guy didn’t even know the name of the code.. he just looked at what you were doing and had an instinct to tell you, you are violating some code.    Bothers me.   Especially when someone is doing something good.

  25. Mike Lieberman May 25, 2011 at 2:05 pm -

    Still locating that…hahha.

  26. Mike Lieberman May 25, 2011 at 2:06 pm -

    All good. There has been no follow-up on that yet. So we shall see.

  27. Faeriewhale May 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm -

    I think the balcony is considered an exit, because of the window above. If your route to the door was obstructed, you could exit out the window, if you needed to; therefore, making it a possible exit. If you made sure there was a clear path from the window to the railing, that would probably be fine. Even if you don’t, I’d get something in writing from the fire dept. Good luck.

  28. Mike Lieberman May 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm -

    Thanks. I’m working on that.

  29. Cara R. May 27, 2011 at 5:50 pm -

    OK, that tripod in the middle of the walkway is definitely in violation.  Bwaaahaaaahaaaa!  Sorry, I had to do it.  Anyway, I hope you get a sufficient resolution to your problem.  We dealt with this issue when we lived on a military base in Japan. “One size fits all” rules can be so annoying.  I don’t see the problem with your balcony though.  Perhaps you could get some shelves and stack the pots on just one side of the balcony to increase the aisle space?  Just a thought!  

  30. Mike Lieberman May 27, 2011 at 5:57 pm -

    Hahaha. Thanks. Still looking for resolution on this.

  31. Karin Lau May 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm -

    When my next-door neighbor in Sacramento destroyed his apartment, and nearly killed his 4-year-old son, in a kitchen stove fire, the last thing on the fire marshal’s and landlord’s minds were my balcony plants.

  32. Kelly May 28, 2011 at 12:10 am -

    I’m in West Hollywood. We seem to have these stupid inspections every time I blink.
    The problem is every inspector will tell you something different. We had the same thing where we were told that no plants, chairs, etc.. could be on the balconies, stairs, walkways, etc… and that there had to be 36″ of space. Yet the air conditioning units (installed by the landlord in some units) blocked the 36″ ‘rule’. They took away the old ac units and replaced them with monster units out back that because of the way our building is set up, we are sure it is a violation.

    They pull some of this stuff out of their rear ends. We have had different people say various things to us over the years. (So called City Inspectors)

    Have them put any code or law in writing.

  33. Mike Lieberman May 28, 2011 at 12:38 am -

    Frustrating ain’t it. It’s all BS. The dude is doin is job and I respect that. IF that’s going to be his claim then do the damned job and cite me the code. 

  34. Mike Lieberman May 28, 2011 at 12:39 am -

    Ugh, sorry to hear that.

  35. 5622216237 May 28, 2011 at 2:28 am -

    Hey Mike (and everyone)

    To avoid this problem I am a REALTOR and can help you find a home so you can do whatever you want to!!!!  Think about it many areas are less expensive then renting….

  36. Eldean June 1, 2011 at 8:28 pm -

    It is a safety issue.  All buildings are required to
    have two sources of egress, a min. of 3 feet wide.  If someone was injured in a fire because you
    had your pots in the way, you and the building owner could be held liable.  This is true for anything on the balconies
    that are considered egress.  The reason
    we have these laws is because people have died due to blocked egress.  It is not arbitrary.  Although I understand your desire to have a
    garden, gardens do not trump safety.

  37. Mike Lieberman June 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm -

    I get and understand that. I’ve been told it’s against code and have not been cited code. I am requesting code that it’s violating. If it is indeed violating a code, I shall remove.

  38. Hazel June 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm -

    I read all of these posts. I noticed one thing you dont take the info you are given, I know you want to keep your plants I would feel the same way. But if someone gets killed. Will you still be worried about the plants. Just move it and stop trying to subvert the laws that have been written. It could be someone living next door to you. You never know who wants the stuff gone. ….

  39. Mike Lieberman June 2, 2011 at 1:49 pm -

    I was cited it’s a violation of some code. I have yet to be given that exact code by the authority who cited it. The fire department came and said it was not a fire hazard. 

    I’m not going to remove them because someone said so, or someone else thinks something. I’ll remove them if it is indeed against a code, which it hasn’t been proven yet by the one who cited it. 

  40. Mike Lieberman June 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm -

    Thanks for the info. So far the fire department has said that it’s not against a code.

  41. I8bambi2 June 9, 2011 at 1:58 am -

    if it’s a federal thing it would be in the NFPA and probably the 101 life code. the down side is that unless you have an account with NFPA or buy the expensive standard books then you won’t be able to research it.

    i would have to look but i know there is a size limit to the passage way. i think you have to have a minimum of 18″ for a passageway to be considered an emergency exit.

    i’ll dig and see what i can find out from a National Fire Code standpoint about balconies

  42. I8bambi2 June 9, 2011 at 2:00 am -

    i thought i had my log in and password to the NFPA here at the house but i don’t. i’ll have to look at work tomorrow.

  43. Mike Lieberman June 9, 2011 at 3:05 am -

    Thanks for looking. Still waiting on the code from the inspector.

  44. Stephss August 8, 2011 at 3:15 pm -

    It appears
    that you have stairs leading to your door…what does it matter what you have
    stored onto your balcony? There is no block to your door are
    essentially using your “porch” area to grow your plants. There should be no code

  45. Mike Lieberman August 8, 2011 at 5:10 pm -

    I’m with you on that Steph.

  46. Manure Tea Gardening August 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm -

    In most (HOA’s/Apt)  storage of anything in or around entry ways is considered a violation and could be one of many things from Weight, Egress/Digress “Access”, Building Esthetics to Potential Building Damage. You should review your tenant lease agreement and see what the By-Laws are for your apartment! In Condo/Town homes there are HOA By-Laws… But these are normally handled by HOA/Apt landlord not the City unless you are in a City owned building…Or have failed to comply with either HOA/Apt Landlord review your lease agreement first! 

  47. Mike Lieberman August 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm -

    Thanks Annie. It has passed.

  48. jjj November 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm -

    Craziness. I’m glad my landlord is so chill, I have a row of those wire cube shelves full of plants and ziptied to the outside of my balcony railing. Solid as a rock but I’m sure some inspectors would have a fit.

  49. k.carpenter May 1, 2013 at 10:19 pm -

    i have just been told the same thing because my property mgmt people have been cited at another one of their properties. everything i’ve found online is that osha requires 28″ for an exit walkway, but then i’ve found 36″ as well…i will acquiesce and bring my plants inside, my front window gets just as much sunlight…still dumb

  50. Lou Hart April 29, 2015 at 8:21 am -

    Compost and soil is known to heat up and can spontaneously combust and can be a fire hazard itself irrigardless of it blocking any potential fire exit. All Windows, doors, even your balcony especially should be clear in the event of a fire you have very little time to escape and backdraft is a very real thing, you never know where you will get trapped. If you live upstairs and especially if you have children always consider fire safety which includes the chemicals in your home and. keep fire escape routes clear and fire escape ladders accessable next to every exit that is above ground. I am speaking from very very tragic experience.

  51. Maige March 14, 2017 at 9:40 am -

    I heard they are getting rid of the state troopers that usually patrol the great lakes!
    Yeah! They are going to leave Erie Guardless!

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