10249291461?profile=RESIZE_710xBoca Raton (above) and Highland Beach are the only two municipalities in Palm Beach County to require inspections of older condominium buildings. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

More local rules likely after bill dies in Legislature

By Joel Engelhardt

Legislators stood on the precipice of requiring condos statewide to conduct structural engineering inspections. But they couldn’t bring themselves to require that condos keep millions in reserve to pay for repairs.
The result is that nine months after Champlain Towers South collapsed in Surfside, killing 98 people, only two municipalities in Palm Beach County have added an inspection requirement: Boca Raton and Highland Beach.
“I’m glad we acted last year,” Boca Mayor Scott Singer said. “It means Boca Raton continues to lead when others didn’t.” 
The county, which put off rules of its own to see what the Legislature would do, will reconsider standards suggested by a task force of local building officials last fall, County Mayor Robert Weinroth said.
“We gave them a chance,” Weinroth said of state legislators. “They made the decision through their inaction to basically give it back to us. … We’re going to have to revisit this.” 
While Boca and Highland Beach moved forward on an inspection requirement, other municipalities that contributed to the task force held off on taking action after the county decided against it on Oct. 19.
Expressing disappointment in the Legislature’s failure, South Palm Beach Town Manager Robert Kellogg said in an email the cities and towns would renew their earlier work. 
“As you know, many of the provisions in the House and Senate bills were items we had in our draft reports,” he wrote. “I believe we need some uniformity for all of the coastal communities.” 
In August, The Coastal Star found that 90% of the 348 condos along the barrier island from South Palm Beach to Boca Raton are more than 25 years old.
In October, the county considered inspections for 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 buildings, four stories and above, would be reinspected every 10 years. But the county proposal did not force condo boards to maintain sufficient reserves to pay for repairs, a matter controlled by state law. 
By then, Boca Raton had already taken action, establishing rules on Aug. 24 that called for inspections of buildings taller than three stories after 30 years and then every 10 years thereafter. 
Highland Beach requires inspections after 25 years, with reinspections in some cases as soon as seven years later. 
But without legislation to get condos to start stashing money away early, condo boards could be facing huge bills to pay for crucial work. 
“If we’re not going to take the second step to financial ability, that just increases the liability of those condo associations,” Weinroth said. “We all have to agree that it’s not enough to identify the problems in the building if there’s not the wherewithal to correct them.” 
Added Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, “Can you mandate inspections if there’s no way to pay for repairs? It makes it harder. … And that’s not a city function. That’s a state function.”
But such financial requirements are just what the Florida Senate stripped out of the bill March 10, when senators voted unanimously to support inspection requirements only. The House didn’t go along with the change, so no bill passed. 
Both sides approved bills that required a “milestone” structural engineering inspection for all Florida condos and co-ops three stories or taller 30 years after opening and then once every 10 years. Buildings within 3 miles of the coastline would be inspected after 20 years. An exception was carved out for two-family or three-family units with three or fewer habitable stories above ground. 
However, the House went further. In House Bill 7069, members approved language on Feb. 24 that called for a study of reserve funds every three years, starting in 2024.  
The study would have to include a summary of the findings of the milestone inspection report; an estimate of the useful life of the structural components of the building and of the cost of “maintenance, repair, replacement, or restoration” of each major component; an estimate of the total annual assessment that may be necessary to cover the costs; and a schedule for the full funding of reserves. 
A Feb. 17 version of the bill blocked condo associations from waiving the collection of reserves or collecting less than required, a House staff analysis said. The Feb. 24 version didn’t ban waivers outright but said that if a condo board waives reserves or uses existing reserve funds for other purposes, it must post a conspicuous message in condo documents saying:
“THE OWNERS HAVE ELECTED TO WAIVE RESERVES, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, OR ALLOWED ALTERNATIVE USES OF EXISTING RESERVES. … THE WAIVING OR ALTERNATIVE USE OF RESERVE FUNDS MAY RESULT IN UNIT OWNER LIABILITY FOR PAYMENT OF UNANTICIPATED SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS REGARDING THOSE ITEMS.”
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, told the Miami Herald that the Senate’s change was unacceptable, warning that it would not help avoid future tragedies. 
“We believe in the House that the bill we passed off the House floor was going to get us as close as ever to making sure that the incident that took place at Surfside never happened again,’’ Perez told the Herald
He also said that, while he was confident “that the Senate is in agreement with the fact that something has to be done, unfortunately, this couldn’t be the year that we do it.”

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