By Joel Engelhardt
Posted on August 4, 2021 at 14:25
A proposal to have the vast majority of older condos, apartment buildings, hotels and office buildings inspected in Palm Beach County is emerging from a coalition of cities studying the issue.
The group is taking aim at buildings — without regard to height — that are 25 years or older east of Interstate 95 and 35 years or older west of the highway, a draft proposal obtained by The Coastal Star revealed.
That standard is more rigorous than the 40-year reinspection rule in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Like the Broward approach, it would exclude one- and two-family dwelling units and most government buildings, including schools. While early discussions centered on so-called “threshold” buildings, which are greater than three stories tall, the draft proposal makes no reference to height.
The draft, by a coalition under the county’s League of Cities, came in response to the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Despite a 2018 report outlining structural issues, the 40-year-old, 13-story Surfside condo had not addressed the issues before it collapsed in the middle of the night, killing 98 people.
More than 90% of the 348 condos along the barrier island from South Palm Beach to Boca Raton are 25 years or older, a Coastal Star analysis found. About half of those are four stories or taller.
Delray Beach has the most condos 25 or older, with 88, followed by Boca Raton, 73, and Highland Beach, 71.
Ocean Ridge has 31, South Palm Beach has 27 and Gulf Stream 19, the analysis of county property records revealed. It also showed five in Manalapan and three on the barrier island in Boynton Beach.
Boca Raton to be first
Building officials from the county and its 39 municipalities are participating in the drafting of the rules, which are not binding on any city. While the building officials agree on several key factors, League of Cities President Kim Glas-Castro said July 28 at a membership meeting that the final decision “is ultimately up to you, the elected officials in each of our cities.”
Boca Raton is moving forward with rules of its own, proposing a review of threshold buildings after 30 years and every 10 years thereafter. A threshold building is defined in state law as greater than three stories or 50 feet tall, with other definitions applying to buildings that offer large gathering spaces, such as churches and bus stations.
City Council members plan to vote on the rules Aug. 24, which would make Boca the first city in Palm Beach County to pass such an ordinance.
However, the city is not opposed to tweaking its rules after seeing the league’s effort, Mayor Scott Singer said. “We will work together to harmonize and not have conflicting or confusing regulations,” he said. “The goal is safety and it is a shared goal.”
The league’s draft, which is about a month from completion and is modeled on Broward County’s rules, also calls for buildings to be reinspected every 10 years after the initial review.
The draft calls for buildings 25 or older to seek inspections according to a staggered schedule based on building size to avoid creating too much demand at one time for engineers.
Highland Beach, where more than half its 83 condos are 40 years or older and 60% rise above three stories, also is pursuing its own rules, with inspections of threshold buildings at 25 years and as often as every seven years thereafter. The rules could be in place by September.
“The overwhelming position is, this needs to be a unified process,” town building official Jeff Rems told the Town Commission at a July 13 meeting. “We also realize we all have to customize it for where we live.”
Although county commissioners discussed countywide rules at a July 13 meeting, the county can only make rules to govern areas outside of city boundaries. That could lead to different rules in various cities and at the county level.
County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth, a former Boca Raton council member who now represents all of South County’s barrier island towns, initially urged cities to proceed in unison and suggested a 2022 countywide referendum to approve a single set of rules to apply to all.
“I don’t think we need to deal with this like the next building is going to fall down next week,” he told county commissioners July 13. “God help us, I hope not.”
But, he said July 27, while he expects state action to outweigh local approaches, he had reconsidered his insistence on uniformity after speaking to city officials.
“I don’t want to jam down the throats of any of our cities something put together at the county level,” he told The Coastal Star.
Still, he would be concerned if too many cities make their own rules. “I wish that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “That would be confusing.”
His concerns are echoed by Michelle DePotter, chief executive of the Florida East Coast Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America.
“We would support consistency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” she wrote in an email to The Coastal Star. “At a minimum, we may be supportive of something countywide. However, our desire would be something statewide.”
Who’s going to pay?
While Highland Beach is looking at some combination of the League of Cities standard and its own rules, the town wrote to condo presidents and building managers July 20 to let them know that they would soon impose a reinspection standard.
Town officials are working to determine which buildings have undergone structural inspections and when those inspections took place.
Highland Beach officials talked about helping with financing, while South Palm Beach officials talked about providing money to help condos foot inspection costs.
“There are creative ways to finance these things,” Highland Beach Mayor Doug Hillman told commissioners on July 13, citing a friend who works in finance.
South Palm Beach council member Mark Weissman suggested the town consider grants to condo boards in need. While he told The Coastal Star he agrees that condo owners should be responsible for covering the inspections, he said the town should still consider at least helping with the costs.
“They should pay for it themselves, but I don’t want a tragedy in our town either,” he said.
South Palm Mayor Bonnie Fischer also called for inspection of seawalls.
Fischer lives in the Imperial House, where pounding surf whipped by Tropical Storm Noel led to the collapse of the building’s seawall in 2007. At the time, many residents didn’t know that the condo was built in 1961 on pilings, which she said saved the building from collapsing into the sea.
“That’s a real Achilles’ heel in this town because we have no access to the beach and there’s no way for anybody to even address or repair the seawalls,” she said.
Details of Boca’s plan
In Boca, inspections must be conducted by both a structural and an electrical engineer. Owners would be given 180 days to complete the repairs, although they would have to be done sooner if the inspection identifies serious problems.
The city’s chief building official, Michael DiNorscio, will send a “notice of required inspection” to the owners of each building requiring certification at least one year before the recertification deadline.
Owners are responsible for hiring the engineers to inspect and prepare reports which will be submitted to the city. If city officials find problems with the reports, owners will have three chances to meet city requirements.
If problems persist, cases will be referred to the Permitting and Construction Review Board, which can turn the matters over to a special magistrate to enforce the requirements.
The city plans to create a database available to the public that will list every building 30 years old or older, when it is due for recertification and whether it is in compliance, among other things.
In a memo to the City Council, City Manager Leif Ahnell said many buildings in the city will need to start the recertification process. On the barrier island, the city has 53 threshold buildings at least 25 years old, The Coastal Star analysis showed. Twenty additional buildings are less than four stories.
Ahnell expects a backlog. As a result, DiNorscio will prioritize buildings based on age, location, construction material and number of residents. Waterfront condos will be high on the priority list.
Property rights vs. safety concerns
There are no signs so far that condo owners object to recertification despite the potential for high-cost repairs.
Contacted before she had read the ordinance, Beach Condo Association President Emily Gentile said she expected to be supportive.
“A certified building will give confidence to the people in residence and future buyers,” she wrote in an email.
One of the challenges all municipalities face is determining just how far they can go to make sure owners keep up private property.
“The town has responsibility to ensure the collective safety and health of the community but doing so can’t strip everyone of private property rights and responsibilities,” Highland Beach Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
After Surfside, many officials believe the government’s safety responsibilities outweigh private property concerns.
“I have always felt that the responsibility for public safety lies in government,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Sachs, whose South County district is west of Military Trail, said at the July 13 commission meeting. “It’s the No. 1 obligation of government.”
In a presentation to the commission during that meeting, the county’s building director, Doug Wise, urged condo boards to act. But he said if a Palm Beach County building had done nothing to fix the problems identified in 2018 at Champlain Towers South, the county would have taken action.
“There would have been a placard on that building: You fix this in so many days,” he said.
The responsibility to maintain adequate reserves and to make repairs falls on the condo owners, he said.
“The cost of the maintenance of the building is what it is. But if you defer the maintenance, it’s going to cost more and it might cost lives. That’s the truth of it,” Wise said.
“People say, ‘You’re going to make it cost money for me.’ No, I’m not going to make it cost money. It is what it costs. You’re going to live on the beach, maintain it.”
Joe Capozzi, Rich Pollack and Mary Hladky contributed to this story.