Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
By Paul Owers
Published July 10, 2017
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.
Pio Ieraci, president of the Galt Mile Community
Association in Fort Lauderdale, says condo owners face expensive
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
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
“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
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
“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.”