CLEANING UP:

For community associations, hurricanes come at a big cost

Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Sunday, October 30, 2005

CLEANING UP: For community associations, hurricanes come at a big cost.

Wilma may have been the last straw: Many of South Florida's homeowner and condo associations will likely hit owners with special assessments to replace destroyed landscaping.

''It's very difficult. The associations can't afford this,'' says Martha Reidy, vice president of the Miami-Dade division of Miami Management, the company hired to manage about 300 community associations.

Most community associations weren't prepared to handle Florida's eight hurricanes in just 15 months, she says.

Few have reserves left to cover Wilma's destruction, which left thousands of snapped palms and toppled shade trees on the ground. Many condo and homeowner associations have to pay for the new landscaping as well as pay private companies to haul away the debris. Cities usually don't pay for clearing the private streets in gated communities.

However, at least one city, Miramar, has said it will help its gated communities with debris removal, saving its community associations thousands of dollars.

''Miramar is going to provide all services to our residents,'' says City Manager Robert Payton. ``We're not going to look at whether they are behind gates or not.''

The city will begin picking up storm debris, beginning Thursday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which reimburses cities for the cost of picking up hurricane debris, has generally refused to reimburse municipalities for picking up debris on private roads.

Donna D. Berger, vice president of a homeowners association in a gated Plantation community, said her community had to come up with more than $3,000 just to clean up after last year's Hurricane Jeanne.

FEMA refused to pay, even though residents offered to remove their gates, says Berger, who is also executive director of the Community Association Leader Lobby (CALL), a nonprofit advocacy group.

''Gated communities don't have public streets,'' says FEMA spokesman Jim Homstad. ``If those are not public thoroughfares that you and I can travel on at our leisure, then we don't pay.''

However, FEMA does make exceptions when the debris poses a threat to public health and safety. Homstad says federal officials are still assessing Wilma's destruction and what exactly FEMA will pay for.

Regardless of whether they have had to pay for debris removal, some South Florida condo and homeowners associations have already levied special assessments to replace this summer's hurricane-destroyed landscaping.

After Katrina toppled trees at the Ocean Village condominium complex in Key Biscayne, its board voted for a special assessment to cover more than $20,000 in damage.

Owners paid according to the size of their unit. An owner of a two-bedroom condo, for example, was assessed just under $170.

Now, two months later, Wilma's destruction will cause the condo board to ask homeowners for more money.

''Considering all the debris, this one [assessment] will probably be more,'' says board member Todd Raphaely.

Owner Jim Brewster says he was concerned about having to pay extra for Katrina's downed landscaping until board members explained the association's insurance would not cover the damage.

Now, he says, he is resigned to paying another special assessment, thanks to Wilma.

Meanwhile, asking for extra money to cover hurricane damage has almost become routine for many Palm Beach condo and homeowner associations. Last year, they levied special assessments to cover huge hurricane landscaping losses from Frances and Jeanne, says Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, www.ccfj.net, a statewide grass-roots group.

Some of the extra charges amounted to thousands of dollars: One homeowner association billed owners $14,000 apiece; a condo association, $12,000, Bergemann says.

Many cities also require associations to replace downed trees.

'Some of these associations had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars not only to clean up the mess but to comply with cities' tree regulations,'' he adds.

REPLACING THE LOSSES

In the weeks ahead, many condo and homeowner associations will be looking to replace their landscaping destroyed by Wilma. Here are some tips to get the best plants and prices:

 Hire an arborist to look at your damaged plants to help you determine which ones you can save. The arborist can also advise on hurricane-resistant trees and shrubs.

 Consider replacing the landscaping in stages. You might be able to avoid a special assessment if you budget the work over two years.

 Take at least three bids for all landscaping work. Know if any of the work is guaranteed and for what period of time. Also make sure your landscapers advises you on how to care for the new plants.

 Use trees and other plants that are a good fit for your community.


 THIS WAS BEFORE WILMA:

Budget, plan to clear debris, rescue trees

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