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No power to inspect condos

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Gulf Shores

Gulf Shores Condominium will be getting a small condo complex as a neighbor on this site of a former convenience store on The Esplanade.

VENICE — Dozens and dozens of condominium units in buildings of varying heights line The Esplanade and Tarpon Center Drive, as well as other locations around the city.

Many — especially those near the beach — date back to the 1970s, making them older than the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside last month.

None is as tall as the 12-story Champlain Towers South, however.

Are the multi-story buildings safe? Other than in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, that’s largely a matter for the developer or condo association.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Rich Cautero asked whether the city should be inspecting older condo towers near the beach for safety.

He said that he’d heard from residents of Gulf Shores Condominium concerned about the potential risk to their building when pile-driving begins for construction of a small condo building next door, where a former convenience store formerly stood.

Venice has no authority to do it, City Manager Ed Lavallee said.

The properties are privately owned, he said. Unless a potential code violation is spotted, there’s no provision in Florida law for a city safety inspection.

Even if there were, City Attorney Kelly Fernandez said she doesn’t think the city would want to be sending city employees out to do such inspections of those buildings.

Discussions in other jurisdictions have involved a requirement that associations bring in outside firms to do the job.

Code provisions in Miami-Dade and Broward require inspections of many types of buildings, including condos, 40 years after the original construction and every 10 years thereafter.

But those are local laws with no application in the state’s other 65 counties.

Neither the city nor Sarasota County has anything similar.

Only nine states — not including Florida — require a condo association to conduct a reserve study periodically, according to the Community Associations Institute.

A state statute that mandated inspections every five years of buildings more than three stories tall was adopted in 2008. The inspection could be waived by a vote of the majority of condo owners. The law was repealed in 2010.

The closest the state comes to a maintenance mandate today is a requirement that the association’s annual budget include funding for painting, roof and pavement repairs and any other item that could cost more than $10,000.

But the unit owners have the power to waive the requirement. They often do, preferring to pay a special assessment when work is needed so they can keep their monthly assessment lower.

It’s perfectly legal, as long as they follow the proper procedure and vote each budget year. If they don’t, the association can be fined up to $50 per unit as a major violation.

There are also penalties for setting up reserves but failing to fund them fully or on time, as well as for spending the money on something it wasn’t budgeted for — again, unless the owners consent.

The maximum statutory penalty is $5,000.

Cautero said that condo safety is not an area in which local jurisdiction should be setting their own rules, even if it means the state is intruding on home-rule powers again.

Currently, there are no statewide standards, he said.

“The rules are going to run the gamut. They’re going to be all over the place.”

He suggested the city might want to ask its lobbyist whether it should get involved in any effort to toughen state law.

The lobbyist’s advice often is to focus on local issues, Cautero said, and the Council has followed it and stayed out of discussions such as Medicaid expansion.

But this is a local issue that directly affects city residents and is a matter of life and death, he said.

Lavallee will report on the lobbyist’s recommendation next month, when the Council returns from its summer break.


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