In two-and-a-half years, Fla. condos should complete inspections. It’s a quick turnaround for a state with 30,000 condo associations, most older than 30 years.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The high-rise condos that dot the 47 miles of shoreline of Palm Beach County still stand tall overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and are a symbol of South Florida’s allure, but just how safe are they?
The question should be answered within the next two and a half years. That is when safety inspections of the buildings are expected to be completed – a result of the action taken following the tragedy that took place some 40 miles to the south 12 months ago.
A year ago Friday, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachside condo building in Surfside, collapsed, killing 98 people. The tragedy pushed the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis to recently adopt a law designed to ensure the structural integrity of high-rise residential buildings in Florida by requiring aging complexes to be inspected by licensed engineers and architects.
Senate Bill 4-D requires “milestone” or initial inspections to be completed by Dec. 31, 2024.
In Palm Beach County alone, there are 2,317 residential buildings that need inspections under the new law; 816 are in unincorporated areas that fall under the jurisdiction of county government, according to County Building Official Doug Wise.
Concerns have been raised about whether the Dec. 31, 2024, deadline is realistic.
Joshua Gerstin of Boca Raton, a land-use lawyer who represents several Palm Beach County associations affected by the new law, believes more time will be needed. He said a Florida Bar task force report estimates there are nearly 30,000 condo associations in the state, and most of them are older than 30 years.
“There is not enough architects and engineers to do all this work,” he said.
Can all the regulation deadlines be met?
Overall, Gerstin said the law is something that was needed, adding: “Buyers will know they are buying into a building that is safe and people who live there will know they are in a building that is being well maintained. There may be some pain in the short term, but in the long term, it will be very positive.”
Patrick Savage, a board member at Boca Inlet Apartments (a condo building), welcomes the new law. Boca Inlet Apartments, a 12-story, 100-unit building, was built in 1965, and is one of the oldest on the intracoastal in Boca Raton. The association expects to soon spend about $300,000 to replace a roof over the carport.
“We stay ahead of the game. We are in great shape. Just about everything the law requires, we are already doing.”
Keith Ruehl of Global Solution Partners, whose firm does reserve studies for scores of condo associations in Florida, agreed with Gerstin that it may be difficult to meet the deadline. But he noted he expects engineers and architects from outside the state to help fill the void.
The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation is overseeing enforcement. A spokesman told The Post that there is nothing in the law that would permit the agency to “extend statutory deadlines.”
Any condominium and co-op building three stories or more must have a “milestone inspection” at 30 years, or at 25 years if within 3 miles of the coastline, with updates every 10 years thereafter. The milestone inspections will determine if a more thorough inspection is necessary. The reports must state whether “unsafe or dangerous conditions” exist.
The report is expected to list the repairs needed to ensure the structural integrity of buildings. Cost estimates must also be provided. Elevators, roofs, load-bearing walls, floors, foundations, fire protection systems, plumbing, electrical systems and windows are among the elements to be inspected.
The board at Champlain Towers knew in 2018 that the building had serious structural problems, yet no action was taken to fix them. By the time the building collapsed, needed repairs were estimated to be as much as $18 million.
“The longer you defer, the bigger the bill,” said Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society.
Can communities afford the repairs?
One concern is the impact on a complex whose owners live on fixed incomes. Ruehl envisions some communities unable to raise the money to fund repairs. He faulted the Legislature for not providing some assistance to such communities either through grants or low-interest loans.
Some associations may be forced to resort to what is called “legal termination” where a developer buys out unit owners to make way for new construction.
Boca Raton and Highland Beach were among the first towns in Florida to adopt their own programs after the Surfside collapse. Others have been waiting for the state to act. Boca Raton spokeswoman Ileana Olmstead said it appears that adjustments will be needed to ensure that the city’s program is consistent with the new state law. Boca Raton has already identified 191 properties that will need to be inspected. It requires that commercial buildings be inspected as well; the state law applies only to residential.
In Highland Beach, inspections are to be done every seven years for buildings older than 40 years. Mayor Doug Hillman said the town does not expect to change those figures to match the state program. He noted that the town has the right to have a stricter program than the state’s.
At the county level, Palm Beach County Building Official Doug Wise said county commissioners will have to decide whether to include two-story buildings. The Post recently reported that a load bearing wall was removed from a two-story condo building at Century Village west of West Palm Beach, forcing the county to order the upstairs and downstairs units to be evacuated until repairs are made. The county is considering ordering the entire 24-unit building be demolished if repairs are not made soon.
Wise said it would be costly to include two-story buildings, but he is concerned how often load-bearing walls have been removed. He said after The Post article was published, his office received other complaints related to the removal of load-bearing walls without permits. His office is currently investigating them.
Will Palm Beach County adopt its own law?
Wise is expected to appear before county commissioners on Aug. 23 to discuss whether the county should adopt its own law. Riviera Beach is not expected to do so, according to the city’s building official, Michael Grimm.
The Palm Beach County League of Cities is sponsoring a forum to discuss the new law on July 18. County and municipal officials are expected to attend the session to determine what the next steps should be.
Meanwhile, several condo associations said they welcome the new law.
Devin Wardell, property manager at 750 Ocean in Boca Raton, said his board has taken steps to ensure the structural integrity of the 16-story building that was built in 1968. The garage ceiling was recently renovated and the concrete on its balconies will soon be repaired.
Lou Pietosi, the president of the homeowners’ association at Ocean Bluffs South in Jupiter, said the complex is finishing a balcony replacement project it began planning for in 2018 – before the tragic collapse in Surfside. That project cost each owner about $40,000, he said.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve had a structural engineer on site for the past three years inspecting the project as it progressed,” Pietosi said, noting that the inspections have helped to determine what future repairs should be made.
A Surfside-type collapse could very well have occurred this year in Tequesta. Residents of 24 waterfront condominiums along the waterfront were evacuated in late March after the village’s fire chief discovered cracks and deterioration in the building’s supporting columns.
Mike Diamond is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. He covers county government and transportation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2022 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc. Palm Beach Post Staff Writers Wayne Washington and Katherine Kokal contributed to this report.
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