Wednesday, July 6, 2022

City of Boca Raton Fields Safety Concerns Over High-Rises

Boca Raton may become one many cities in Florida to belatedly enact safety requirements for oceanfront high-rises.

Last week a city spokeswoman said, “We’re being inundated” with calls from residents whose panic started on June 24 with the collapse of the 13-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Those pricey views of the Atlantic now seem risky.

Condo owners, the spokeswoman said, essentially want the city to tell them whether their home is safe. The city, of course, cannot do that. Code enforcement officers will conduct “surface inspections,” the spokeswoman said, but that’s all. Only a structural engineer can determine the condition of a building.

The 157 pages of condo law in Florida include very little state oversight beyond inspections of elevators and fire extinguishers. Cities and counties, however, can set rules for how often high-rises must be recertified for safety. Broward and Miami-Dade counties are the only local governments to have done so, requiring recertification after 40 years.

At its next meeting on July 27, the spokeswoman said, the city council likely will consider a recertification ordinance. There are no details yet. “Multiple people,” the spokeswoman said, are working on the proposal. “It’s an all-hand-on-deck approach,” she said.

In an email, Mayor Scott Singer directed concerned residents to the website of the Beach Condominium Association. “I am committed,” Singer said, “to fast-tracking our efforts to enhance our safeguards.”

As noted, however, the city has no safeguards. No cities do. For more than the last half-century, the policy among most elected officials in Florida has been to encourage the construction of tall buildings near the ocean and ask little of residents. Developers got to sell their vision of low-cost oceanfront paradise and residents bought in. The condos brought significant property tax revenue.

But as the collapse in Surfside showed, the reality is something else. There are roughly 50,000 condo boards in Florida, most of them lacking the expertise to deal with the complex engineering and financial issues that go with maintaining buildings exposed to sun, wind and salt water. Florida allows boards to opt out of creating reserve funds to pay for safety upgrades.

Similarly, cities—however well-intentioned after a tragedy that has embarrassed this state—likely will find a response is far from simple. Creating a recertification law would  mean creating a structure to enforce it, which could place Boca Raton at legal risk. It’s also unlikely that a city could require condo owners to spend money on safety upgrades. Recertification expenses alone could annoy owners.

Consider that in 2008 the Florida Legislature sensibly required older condos to install sprinklers. After condo HOAs complained about the cost, the Legislature repealed the requirement. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who had signed the first bill, signed the repeal.

Perhaps the Surfside collapse will change the condo market. Prospective buyers may ask about safety reports and whether assessments for repairs are pending. Units built after stiffer codes took effect in 2002 may gain in value while prices for older units drop.

But a city law will be tricky. I’ll have an update when the ordinance is drafted and when we see whether Delray Beach wants to propose one of its own.

Ocean Properties/DeSantis connection?

Delray Beach-based Ocean Properties was in the news last week when Gov. DeSantis signed a bill to overturn three referendums that Key West voters passed last year to restrict the size of cruise ships at the city’s port.

According to reporting by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, entities related to Ocean Properties and owned by company vice president Mark Walsh donated $995,000 to DeSantis’ fundraising organization before the governor signed the legislation. Walsh leases a pier that is near the Opal Key Resort & Marina, which Ocean Properties owns.

Ocean Properties was among several critics of the referendums. Disney Cruises and others also opposed them. Local port captains and environmental groups said the restrictions would protect marine life and local businesses. The measures, all of which got at least 60 percent of the vote, prohibited ships carrying more than 1,300 passengers from docking and limited to 1,500 the number of passengers who could disembark each day.

Walsh and Ocean Properties also donate to city commission candidates. Walsh told the Herald/Times that the idea of a link between the donations to DeSantis and the governor’s support of the bill is “absolutely incorrect.”

The Boring Tunnel    

mizner park

I wrote recently that Boca Raton may ask Elon Musk’s Boring Company to make a presentation about building a tunnel from the Brightline station near the downtown library to Mizner Park. Fort Lauderdale soon may offer guidance.

At tonight’s meeting, the city commission will decide whether to accept Boring’s unsolicited proposal to build two tunnels—one in each direction— from the Las Olas Boulevard area of downtown Fort Lauderdale to the beach. According to the staff memo, riders would pay fares starting at $5 for the three-mile, one-way trip.

The city did not solicit Boring’s proposal. By accepting it, the commission would give other companies between 21 days and 120 days to submit their own proposals. Realistically, however, Boring is the only dog in this hunt.

Though the idea might seem far-fetched, cities have few current options for moving around crowded downtowns. Fort Lauderdale is going through a high-rise building boom and city officials have pitched the tunnel as the only realistic way to connect residents with the beach.

Singer said he expects that Boring will make a presentation to the city council this month or next.

Florida high court won’t hear mask case

The Florida Supreme Court has declined to hear the case against Palm Beach County’s mask mandate.

Among the plaintiffs was Josie Machovec, who ran last March for the Boca Raton City Council. She and three other county residents challenged the mandate, which took effect roughly a year ago and expired on June 27. The trial court judge and the 4th District Court of Appeal, based in West Palm Beach, had upheld the mandate as part of the county’s proper role to protect public health.

Delray street project

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, inserted $1.1 million for a Delray Beach street project in the five-year transportation bill that the House passed on July 1. Frankel’s district includes Delray Beach.

The project would be part of the city’s Complete Streets Program and provide improvements—such as bike lanes—to Lowson Boulevard from Dover Road to Federal Highway. The bill passed almost along party lines and now will become part of the discussion over President Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Delray gets COVID money


On related matters, Delray Beach has received $615,000 in reimbursements for COVID-19-related expenses.

The money comes from the CARES Act that Congress approved in March 2020 as the pandemic began. Assistant City Manager Duncan Tavares credited city staff for a “stellar job” in tracking expenses. As with reimbursements for hurricane expenses, local governments must document that their costs aligned with federal disaster rules.

In addition, Delray Beach has applied for its first share of $13.2 million from the American Rescue Plan that Democrats passed this year. Cities and counties likely will get half of their allotment in this initial distribution. Delray Beach city commissioners will decide how to spend it. The money must go toward recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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