By Joel Engelhardt
After months of work to hammer out a condo reinspection program in the wake of the Surfside tragedy, Palm Beach County commissioners decided last month to do nothing and wait for the Florida Legislature.
In a rambling hourlong discussion Oct. 19, commissioners weighed in with a variety of reasons for backing off the approach developed over months by county and city building officials and endorsed by a county advisory board.
Commission Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth, who represents the South County barrier island, called the proposal a “grandiose scheme” and argued that the system of inspections was fine before Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24, killing 98 people.
The system still works, he said.
“I don’t want our residents to think that if we take it slow in implementing a grandiose scheme for having reinspections and recertifications that we’re going to be doing anything to put their lives in jeopardy,” he said, later adding, “I don’t want to see us put a system in place that is going to be so cumbersome that it’s going to miss the mark.”
Standing by the proposal developed under his group’s leadership, League of Cities Executive Director Richard Radcliffe said the building officials who helped write the plan always knew it could be superseded by the state.
“We came up with a very wonderful, thoughtful work product that we will make available to anybody who wants to use it,” Radcliffe said in an interview. “We stand by our product.”
Cities still can move forward with the approach, which gained the backing of the county’s Building Code Advisory Board in September. It would require experts to inspect buildings 25 years and older east of Interstate 95 and 35 years or older west of the highway, a more stringent standard than the 40-year requirement in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Champlain Towers had stood in Surfside for 40 years when it collapsed.
The county’s decision had industry support, said Michelle DePotter, CEO of the Associated General Contractors’ Florida East Coast Chapter. “I like where you all are going,” she told commissioners about the decision to wait until March, when the Legislature’s two-month session ends. “That is where the AGC’s focus has been.”
Some go their own way
Boca Raton already has put similar requirements into place and Highland Beach may do so later this month.
Other cities were waiting to see what the County Commission would do before taking action, Radcliffe said, especially cities farther west with fewer high-rise buildings and little ocean impact.
On the barrier island, where a Coastal Star review found 300 condos built before 1990 from South Palm Beach to Boca Raton, some town managers say they’ll now bring the proposal to elected officials.
South Palm Beach, with 26 pre-1990 condos, is likely to consider the League of Cities proposal at its Nov. 9 meeting, Town Manager Robert Kellogg said.
Ocean Ridge, which has 29 such condo buildings, will hear it too, Town Manager Tracey Stevens said, but she didn’t know when.
Gulf Stream, which has 19 condos built before 1990 and relies on Delray Beach for building oversight, had been watching the county to see what it would do, Town Manager Greg Dunham said.
“We always pay attention to what is happening in Tallahassee, but even the county is looking to the state for uniform rules this first session after the Surfside building collapse,” he wrote in an email. “Now that the county is out of the picture for the time being, we will be working with our building officials at Delray Beach to determine whether we should proceed with something now or wait to see if the state will take up this issue when they are back in session.”
Boca Raton already took action, establishing rules on Aug. 24 that call for inspections of buildings taller than three stories after 30 years and then every 10 years thereafter. It exempts single-family homes and duplexes.
The city estimates that it has 242 buildings that meet the criteria and it will take four years for them to all be inspected. The city would hire an engineer, code enforcement officer and an administrative staffer to oversee the program at an annual cost of about $253,000.
Highland Beach gave initial approval in October to require inspections after 25 years, with reinspections in some cases as soon as seven years later. The town says it has 80 buildings that fit the criteria.
In both cases the inspections would be conducted by private-sector experts, not city inspectors, an approach taken by the League of Cities as well.
Relying on condo residents
While experts insist that structural defects are likely to be hard to detect and in some cases invisible to the naked eye, commissioners said they were comfortable knowing that if anything is amiss, residents will let them know.
“We had a system in place where inspectors were going out, they were responding to complaints, they were seeing, on their own accord, systems that required remediation and that system is still in place today,” Weinroth said. “We need to make sure we don’t put a system in place that’s going to obscure our ability to do what we’re doing right now, which is to identify the problems.”
He argued that the county doesn’t have the staff to oversee inspections and the private sector doesn’t have enough engineers to meet the demand.
“We don’t have enough structural engineers and electrical engineers to even go out there and do this in the next five years,” he said. “And we know that Miami-Dade and Broward are sucking up all of that talent right now because they see the problem as being in their backyard.”
Additionally, commissioners worried that cash-strapped condo boards would be unable to find the money to make necessary repairs.
“I hate to put a system in place that, again, is going to overwhelm our resources, it’s going to overtax our residents with special assessments that they’re not going to be able to afford,” Weinroth said. “We already have a problem with affordable housing right now. We’re just going to make it more unaffordable.”
The fear, he said, is creating such a big system of reinspections that a potentially catastrophic situation would go undetected.
“I would not like to see us wind up obscuring a problem by putting so many people or so many buildings on an inspection list that we miss the two or three that really need our attention,” Weinroth said.
In Surfside, an inspection showed the need for $15 million in work at Champlain Towers South in 2018, but the work was only just getting underway when the building collapsed.
Commissioner Maria Sachs, who represents the western portions of South County, also backed waiting for legislation but worried that the Legislature would accept a Florida Bar suggestion to shift liability for structural failure to the municipality.
“We don’t have the funds, we don’t have the engineers, we don’t have the inspectors, we don’t have the staff, and the last thing we need is to go forward without a full contingent of inspectors with the idea that we can have liability if anything collapses because somebody missed something,” she said.
While she supported waiting, her husband, condo lawyer Peter Sachs, told the Boca Raton City Council in August that he supported Boca’s decision to put reinspection rules in place.
“There is no greater responsibility elected officials have than protecting the safety of the residents,” he said, calling Boca’s proposal a big step toward doing that.