The town of Highland Beach (above) believes not all municipalities have the same concerns regarding condo inspections. An analysis of Palm Beach County property records shows about 74 condos and co-ops along the town's 3-mile-long stretch of the barrier island. Of these, 38 were built prior to 1982. Google Maps
By Joel Engelhardt
As Palm Beach County officials, under mounting pressure from residents, prepare rules to discuss regulating condominium inspections, there’s one thing they already agree on.
“Everyone thinks 40 years is too long,” said Kim Glas-Castro, president of the Palm Beach County League of Cities.
Requiring inspections after 40 years is the rule in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, while Palm Beach County has no requirement. The league is thinking of 25 years for seaside high-rises and 35 years for inland buildings, Glas-Castro said.
While County Administrator Verdenia Baker called a meeting last week with building officials from the county’s 39 municipalities, the league is likely to take the lead on rules that could temper concerns among oceanside residents after the tragic June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside.
The league is better positioned to lead because almost all the oceanfront high-rises in Palm Beach County are in cities, not the unincorporated county, according to Glas-Castro. A technical group made up of building officials plans to meet July 9.
But it faces a challenge: Finding a template everyone can agree on.
Uniformity will be key, said Glas-Castro, Lake Park’s vice mayor and the assistant village manager in Palm Springs.
“All the building officials are on the same page that we need to do something collectively so we have similar requirements,” she said.
However, Boca Raton is drafting rules of its own, and Highland Beach is considering doing so, two municipalities with a preponderance of oceanfront condos.
“I’m not sure it should be a one-size-fits-all solution for the whole county,” said Peggy Gossett-Seidman, a Highland Beach commissioner who attended the league’s initial meeting. “Highland Beach is a 3-mile-long barrier island. It’s hard to say our needs are the same as Wellington, Greenacres or Jupiter Farms.”
While the building industry favors uniformity, there is room for cities to tweak the universal protocol, Glas-Castro said. For instance, she said, the league is looking at inspections only of buildings four stories or higher but Highland Beach could decide to require all buildings within town limits to comply.
The prospect of inspections paid for by building owners raises difficult questions for government watchdogs, Glas-Castro pointed out. What happens if a condo board throws out an inspection that calls for expensive repairs? What teeth does government have to make sure repairs are made? Will the Legislature step up next year and require condos to maintain higher reserves?
Building officials, who oversee permitting and inspection of all construction in a city or county, worry that they don’t have the authority to avoid another Surfside. Code citations often lead to lengthy, years-long exchanges before magistrates, with small fines accruing.
“At what point does the building official red tag the building as unsafe and order it be evacuated?” Glas-Castro asked. “It’s very political and very sensitive.”
The league expects to produce a draft ordinance within weeks. Whatever the local governments do, it will be temporary until the Legislature acts next year, Glas-Castro said.
And the prospect for legislative action is great, said state Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach.
“Something will be done. Something has to be done,” he said.
The calls from residents are pouring in, he said.
“It’s kind of like a hurricane is coming and they want to be able to turn on the news and see if it’s coming. And you can’t do that with this problem.”
Ideally, government wouldn’t be in this position, forced to oversee practices typically decided by condominium boards and their insurers, Glas-Castro said.
“Unfortunately cities have to babysit property owners, but we have to do what we need to to assure the safety of our residents,” she said.