By Rich Pollack
With the June collapse of Surfside’s 12-story Champlain Towers South condo still on their minds, Highland Beach town commissioners gave tentative approval in September to an ordinance requiring regularly scheduled structural and electrical inspections for most of the town’s more than 80 condos.
“For us, we have enough condos over 40 years old to warrant attention,” Commissioner John Shoemaker said. “It’s not a threat today, but it’s enough of a concern for us to implement a recertification process to ensure the safety of our people and property.”
Under the proposed ordinance, buildings in the town that are more than three stories or 50 feet in height will be required to have a recertification inspection when the building reaches 25 years old. For buildings under 40 years old those inspections will be required every 10 years. For the 45 buildings over 40 years old, inspections will be required every seven years.
The Highland Beach ordinance will require inspections to be performed by “a professional structural engineer … qualified by training and experience as a certified special inspector of threshold building certifying and attesting that each such building is structurally safe, or setting forth structural deficiencies identified and any repairs or alterations necessary to make the building structurally safe.”
The ordinance would also require that buildings be inspected by an electrical engineer who looks for any issues affecting the safety of residents.
During discussions following the Champlain Towers collapse, Highland Beach leaders made it clear that the town’s role will be limited mostly to administering the ordinance and ensuring that its provisions will be followed.
Highland Beach personnel will not conduct inspections, nor will they arrange for inspections of individual buildings. That responsibility will fall on the shoulders of each building’s leadership.
The town’s building department, however, will be responsible for reviewing all of the inspections and will be charged with making sure corrections to any deficiencies are made within a required amount of time.
Condo associations will have a year to fix any deficiencies, beginning at the time they are notified of need for an inspection, but will also be required to make any serious corrections under a time frame identified by an inspector.
One of the challenges Highland Beach faced is determining the extent of the town’s role in ensuring the structural integrity of buildings while not overstepping individual homeowner rights.
“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,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
While Highland Beach commissioners recognize that state restrictions could be coming down the road, they have said all along that the town needs its own ordinance, tailored to its geography.
“Especially on a barrier island, with our buildings taking punishment from the weather, we need this kind of oversight,” Shoemaker said.
During a September meeting, the Building Code Advisory Board of Palm Beach County agreed to send proposed building code amendments brought by the Palm Beach County League of Cities to the County Commission for consideration.
The amendment would require inspections for larger buildings east of Interstate 95 every 25 years and inspections of buildings west of the interstate every 35 years. The recommendation, however, includes flexibility for municipalities, which can incorporate the restrictions into their codes either fully or partially. While elected officials are working out details, some Highland Beach condo associations are moving forward in anticipation of regulations.
At Highlands Place, a 12-story, 45-unit condominium built in 1989, condo board President David Stern says he has already made contact with a structural engineer and asked to be placed on a list for inspection once local regulations are approved.
Stern, whose oceanfront building underwent a million-dollar-plus concrete restoration and painting project about three years ago, says he believes a town ordinance requiring inspections is beneficial.
“I feel very comfortable that we’re in very good shape,” he said. “We had engineers go through the whole building and we did exactly what they asked for.”
Still, he says, having an additional inspection isn’t a negative because it can identify small problems before they become big problems and it can help eliminate surprises.
Stern also believes that unit owners benefit by having inspections.
“It helps the property values, it helps everything, when you can say we’ve been inspected and confirmed we’re in good shape,” he said.
A short distance down the road, at the 51-year-old Penthouse Highlands condominium, association President P.T. Henry is also confident that an inspection won’t turn up any major issues. At the same time, he too is in favor of town-mandated recertification.
Henry said his association, like Stern’s, did a concrete restoration project just a few years ago and put a priority on maintaining the property.
“I don’t think we have a problem,” he said, “but it makes sense to assure ourselves that we don’t have issues. Why would we not want to bring experts in to confirm that?”