Gov. Rick Scott Vetoes Crucial Bill
Hundreds of thousands of condominium owners in South Florida and across the state are facing financial pressure to install fire-safety devices in older buildings following Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of a bill that would have allowed them to avoid the work altogether.
Many unit owners could face thousands of dollars in costs to install fire sprinklers where there are none, while associations face the possibility of levying special assessments to fund upgrades in common areas.
At least 5,600 condo developments statewide could be affected, although buildings standing less than 75 feet tall would be exempt. Owners in structures built after 1994 need not worry as sprinklers for newly constructed projects were mandated that year.
Association leaders, condo lawyers and residents called the veto a bad deal, while those in enforcement noted that owners have had more than enough chances to install upgrades mandated nearly two decades ago.
Pio Ieraci, president of the 16,000-resident Galt Mile Community Association in Fort Lauderdale, said the veto will force buildings to spend millions of dollars on sprinklers and other equipment, leading to expensive special assessments — $15,000 to $25,000 per owner, in some cases.
He said many residents in older buildings are on fixed incomes and could lose their homes in foreclosure if they can’t come up with the money. And he said the assessments could jeopardize the financial stability of condo associations, reduce property values and make it harder for owners to sell individual units.
“It’s unconscionable and unbelievable,” Ieraci said. “The impact is huge.”
Under state law, condos taller than 75 feet and built before 1994 must be retrofitted with sprinklers or “engineered life safety systems” by the end of 2019.
House Bill 653 — sponsored in the House by Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, and in the Senate by Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples — would have extended that deadline until 2022 and allowed condo residents, with a two-thirds vote, to opt out of the retrofits.
In a 2009 report, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees condos, estimated that 5,600 projects in Florida needed retrofits, though the agency says it doesn’t have a more recent figure.
In South Florida, the number could top 200 projects, said Donna DiMaggio Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and shareholder with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm representing condo associations statewide.
The thousands of condos built in South Florida over the past 17 years are not affected. The requirements don’t apply to condo buildings shorter than 75 feet or those built after 1994, when a state law mandated that new buildings have fire sprinklers.
In a letter to Scott urging him to veto the bill, Julius Halas, director of the Division of State Fire Marshal, said most of the equipment used by firefighters can’t reach a height of more than 75 feet.
“It has been proven that fire sprinklers are the best means of life safety and property protection available,” he wrote.
In an interview following the veto, Halas said condo associations should seek multiple bids from contractors in an effort to lower costs and to contact their insurance carriers about cost savings that may result from installing the fire protection systems.
Halas said it’s “disingenuous” for supporters of the bill to complain about costs now, considering that the retrofit requirement was first adopted in 2000 with a compliance deadline of 2012. The deadline has been extended twice.
“They’ve had 17 years, and they still have two and a half years, but time is getting shorter,” he said.
Supporters of the bill insist residents in older buildings should have the choice whether to install the fire-safety equipment. They say fire officials may be pushing for stricter requirements as a way to make up for deficiencies in resources and training.
“You’ve got a lot of frail residents who can’t move,” said Berger, the attorney. “They are literally shut-ins. They don’t let the pest-control person in, let alone someone to retrofit their unit.”
Condos that haven’t already opted out of sprinklers have no choice but to install the life-safety systems, which haven’t been clearly defined, supporters of the bill say.
Berger said condo boards will have to decide on the timing of hiring an engineer to produce life-safety reports for their buildings, entering into contracts for the installation and applying for permits.
Depending on local fire marshals, some associations could face penalties if they don’t undertake those steps immediately, while other boards may have more leeway in waiting to see if a similar bill can pass during next year’s legislative session, she said.
Berger said she hopes state officials will advise local fire marshals not to pressure associations, given the legislature’s near-unanimous support for the bill.
Howard Elfman, a Broward County real estate agent and a past president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Realtors, said the retrofits are a “messy process” that likely will curtail buyer demand in buildings while the work is being performed.
But Elfman doesn’t expect it to lead to a sustained decline in property values.
“Quite the opposite — it makes the property more appealing,” he said. “It ultimately will be a benefit to any owner.”
Moraitis said he hopes to sponsor another bill next year. In the meantime, he will work with the governor and fire marshals on less-expensive alternatives for condos.
Still, owners are worried.
Fred Nesbitt, 73, owner of a two-bedroom condo at Galt’s Playa Del Mar and president of its association, said he and other residents already feel safe. Their 347-unit building has smoke detectors and fire alarms throughout.
In 2015, the building completed $4.5 million in structural repairs, and many of the residents can’t afford another assessment, Nesbitt said.
“Coming on top of that, it would be devastating,” he said.
Eric Berkowitz, 67, who lives in a three-bedroom Galt Ocean Mile condo, said he and many of his neighbors live on modest means and wonder whether assessments will force them to leave.
“We’re frightened, is basically what it comes down to,” he said. “I live on a pension and Social Security. Most of the people here are not masters of the universe. We can’t afford something capricious like this.”