The Champlain Towers collapse that killed 98 people in Surfside in June weighed heavily over a special magistrate’s hearing last month when South Palm Beach officials voiced concerns about erosion damage to three oceanfront condominiums.
The Dec. 22 hearing dealt with code violations at one condo, La Pensee, but discussion of that case disclosed concerns about damages at two other condos, Horizon East and Mayfair House East.
“We don’t want another Surfside here in South Palm Beach,’’ Town Attorney Glen Torcivia said, explaining why the town is demanding immediate repairs to sea wall erosion near a corner of the pool deck behind La Pensee, a 24-unit oceanfront condo at 4000 S. Ocean Blvd.
Special Magistrate Mitty Barnard agreed with the town code officer’s determination that the damage violated the town code as “an unsafe structure.’’
She gave La Pensee a Feb. 1 deadline to secure permits for the repairs and a March 1 deadline to complete the repairs. La Pensee had been seeking a March 18 deadline to finish the work, a time line that left town officials uncomfortable.
Pounding surf during November king tides eroded a 5-foot section of the sea wall near the stairs at the northeast corner of the pool deck, said Kevin Markow, an attorney for the condo.
But, he said, engineers who have looked at the damage said the six-story condo, built in 1985, and its residents are not in imminent danger, an opinion town officials aren’t ready to fully support.
Markow said the condo was in the process of hiring an engineer to conduct a thorough study and report as part of the repair plans. Those plans were initiated, he said, before the town’s building officials alerted code enforcement about potential safety violations.
“We will certainly share our engineering report with the town when we have it,’’ Markow said. “I don’t know if it should be a condition of the order. We all have the same interests, to make sure everybody is safe and the property is secure. There’s no indication that it is not, at present.’’
Town Manager Robert Kellogg took issue with that answer, sparking a brief debate with Markow.
“I totally disagree,’’ Kellogg said. “You’re not an engineer. We need some kind of a letter from them saying that there is no imminent danger to that facility or that structure. Period.’’
Markow responded, “I mean, has the town sent an engineer out to the property?”
“The only people I know that have been out there are inspectors,’’ Kellogg said.
“And they’re not engineers, right?’’ Markow replied.
“They’re not,’’ Kellogg said, leaning closer to his microphone, “but let me tell you something. We had a situation in Surfside. I’m dealing with a situation very similar to this right across the street from Town Hall where I have an engineering report that there is a potential collapse over there. And I want to ensure that the residents of that condo are protected.’’
Repairs begun at Mayfair
After the meeting, Kellogg explained that his remarks about the “potential collapse” across the street from Town Hall were about erosion problems discovered in June to the pool and pool deck at Horizon East, a seven-story condo built in 1973.
A private engineering report commissioned by The Mayfair House, which is immediately south of Horizon East, warned that the north segment of Mayfair House East was “at risk of imminent collapse’’ after erosion led to the formation of a sinkhole.
Emergency repairs have been initiated since the report was issued June 30. Workers are still in the process of “shoring up the void” with jacks and steel beams and plates, Kellogg said after the Dec. 22 hearing.
During the hearing, Markow assured town officials that La Pensee’s top priority is the safety of its residents.
“But you have to understand a little bit of the origin of how we wound up here,’’ he said. “We have a disgruntled resident who is in multiple litigation proceedings with the association and reported this violation as a matter of spite.’’
Torvicia said town officials don’t care how the violation was reported. They just want the La Pensee repairs done as soon as possible.
The special magistrate asked town officials if they consider the damage “a health/safety issue at the moment.’’
“We don’t know,’’ code enforcement officer Manny Palacios said. “We don’t know the depth and problem of the erosion issue. That’s exactly why the building official would like to have a letter from their engineers stating right now there is no immediate danger to the pool or the structure itself.’’
Markow assured the town and the magistrate that the board of La Pensee wants to make the repairs as soon as possible.
“We take it very seriously but by no means do we think this is an issue where residents’ safety is an issue,’’ he said.
“The cause was king tides in four to five days in November. It was not a lack of maintenance. It was something that was completely unforeseeable.’’
If La Pensee fails to meet the magistrate’s February and March deadlines, it can be fined up to $100 a day.
With condos and towns up and down the coast scrambling to hire engineers and contractors to make sure their buildings are safe, getting the repairs done by March 1 might be a challenge, Markow said.
“Certainly in a post-Champlain Towers world, what I can continue to offer is to share any engineering records we do have and any reports we do receive with the town immediately. What I can tell you based on engineers that have been out there is, nobody went out there and said, ‘You’ve got a major problem on your hands.’ It seems to be a pretty garden variety sea wall erosion sea wall repair,’’ Markow said.
“We understand the urgency and the board is certainly acting responsibly. … But I don’t want to hit the panic button” when no one else is.
Although Highland Beach and Boca Raton have moved ahead with their own inspection rules, South Palm Beach and other municipalities decided to wait for guidance from Palm Beach County on a countywide program. The county, though, has put that plan on hold and is waiting to see if the state Legislature creates a statewide program.
In light of the problems at Horizon East and Le Pensee, might the town reconsider implementing its own program?
“Certainly we can reconsider it,” Kellogg said in an interview Dec. 23, “but with our building official being part of that task force that was put together by the (county) League of Cities, the council just decided to wait and see if the Legislature is going to do anything. I think there is still a large concern about not only those two buildings, but other structures in town and the potential damage being done.”