February 29, 2024

House leader: Legislature may examine building codes

As the investigation continues into the deadly condominium collapse in Surfside, a top Republican Florida House leader said Monday that lawmakers don’t need to make immediate changes to state building codes.

Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican set to take over as House speaker following the 2022 elections, pointed to the inability of the Champlain Towers South condo association to quickly address safety and structural repairs needed for the once 12-story building.

“It will be something I assure you that we're going to look at and address and determine whether the solutions are legislative or whether they're an issue of basically a breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the (condo association) board members,” Renner said during a video conference with reporters Monday. “In the case that occurred in Surfside, where there was known these issues that were looming, and the decision --- it appears from initial reports --- not to move forward with an assessment to fix it. Obviously, every board member of every entity has a fiduciary duty. And so we'll take a look at that. If we need to strengthen that and make that clear, we can certainly do that.”

Renner hosted Monday’s press conference to discuss plans by the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee, which he chairs, heading into next year’s elections.

The GOP leader cautioned against seeking legislative remedies before the actual cause of the South Florida disaster is determined.

“Sometimes we fix things with solutions that don't address the underlying problem,” Renner told reporters. “And so, we'll get all the facts. Find out what, you know, what could have been done earlier to stop that from happening so that those repairs could have been made. But it appears obvious, from the reports that I've seen, that there was, at least at some point, a conscious effort not to address needed repairs.”

With funding left to condos and homeowner associations, state condominium inspection and repair requirements have drawn increased attention since Champlain Towers South partially collapsed on June 24. The remaining section was demolished on July 4. The death toll reached 94 on Monday, according to authorities.

The Champlain Towers South board of directors apparently had been trying to get residents to authorize expensive assessments needed to address structural issues as the building was set to undergo a scheduled 40-year, state-required recertification.

Jean Wodnicki, the president of the condo association’s board of directors, wrote in an April 9 letter to residents that the structural issues were worsening.

“We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now, and will continue to do so for years to come as different items come into play,” she wrote. "A lot of the work could have been done or planned for in years gone by. But this is where we are now.”

Condo owners’ assessments for the repairs ranged from $80,000 to $336,000 depending on the size and location of the unit.

Without the assessments, there was less than 10 percent of the $10.3 million to $16 million needed for repairs available in the association’s reserves, according to a report by USA Today.

Renner’s hesitancy to amend Florida building codes echoed sentiments expressed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who last week said he wasn’t ready to propose changes in state oversight of aging high-rise condominium buildings.

Calling such condominiums “a dime a dozen” and describing the collapse of the 40-year-old oceanfront building as a “unique tragedy,” DeSantis said Wednesday it remains unknown if the disaster will require extensive changes to issues such as building inspections or construction.

“Obviously, we want to be able to identify, why did this happen?” DeSantis told reporters while at the state Emergency Operations Center discussing the impacts of Tropical Storm Elsa. “Is this something that was unique to this building? Is it something that was unique to the person that maybe developed it, because obviously there are sister properties? Is it something that buildings of that age, that would have implications beyond that, whether (in) southern Florida or the entire state of Florida? I think we need to get those definitive answers.”

Analysis of the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South has focused in part on degradation of reinforced concrete support in the building’s underground parking garage and corrosion of steel.

Asked about whether the collapse could hurt Florida’s surging real-estate market, DeSantis appeared to indicate the collapse could be unique.

“I can just say this, having talked with people who've been on the scene, people who've done stuff, I think this building had problems from the start. Let’s put it that way,” the governor said last week. “So I wouldn't jump to conclusions about it. But at the same time, if there is something identified that would have implications broader than Champlain Towers, then obviously we are going to take that and act as appropriate.”

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