Condos face decision on sprinklers

New state laws that no longer require condo associations to retrofit fire safety sprinklers in older high-rises -- if most owners agree -- have sparked safety concerns.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Donna Gehrke

Published October 9, 2010

In the months ahead, many residents of older high-rise condos will be deciding whether they want to buy a potentially expensive fire safety sprinkler system or save the money.

A state law that took effect July 1 is allowing residents in older buildings to say no to retrofitting their buildings for sprinklers as long as a majority of owners agree. Some condo association attorneys are already meeting with residents to discuss the new law's impact.

Miami Beach's chief fire prevention analyst Sonni Moore is urging condo owners to put lives ahead of money and install the sprinklers.

"You just never know when a situation might affect your family,'' Moore said.

Others, however, contend that their condo buildings -- at least for now -- can't afford the sprinklers, not when they are facing foreclosures and fewer people to help pay for maintaining the high-rises.

"It is a big expense,'' said Joseph Buerk, president of the 61-unit, 10-floor Seacrest Towers Condominiums in Pompano Beach, who plans to ask owners to vote to opt out of installing sprinklers. He noted that his 39-year-old building is made of stucco and concrete, not of more fire-prone wood.

"We have foreclosed units,'' Buerk said. "We are fortunate that we don't have as many as other buildings. But installing the sprinklers would be a burden.''

The controversial sprinkler exemption is part of a new batch of laws that took effect July 1 in an effort to make condo living more affordable in a tight economy. Now the state doesn't require owners to insure their unit's contents.

Florida also has reversed itself and no longer requires high-rises to have at least one generator-run elevator during power outages that occur during a major storm as long as a majority agrees that it is not needed.

This has alarmed some fire officials and grass-roots activists who worry that older South Florida condos would not be prepared for a major fire or another major hurricane like 2005's Wilma, which destroyed thousands of condo units and left many buildings without power for weeks.

"Remember the old folks had to be carried down the stairs,'' said Jan Bergemann, president and founder of the statewide, grass-roots Cyber Citizens for Justice.

Others say many condo owners in older high-rise buildings can't afford costly assessments for the sprinklers and generators. Plus, condo owners say they, not the state, should decide how they spend their money.

"It's all about choice,'' said Donna Berger, an attorney and executive director of Community Advocacy Network.

The new law allows high-rise buildings of more than 75 feet to opt out of installing the sprinkler system as long as a majority of owners vote for that by 2016. If they do not vote by then, the owners will have to chip in to pay for the sprinklers.

Neither the new law nor the old one that required sprinkler retrofitting covered shorter buildings where fires have broken out.

A Labor Day fire, for example, claimed the life of an elderly tenant of a two-story condo building in Lauderhill. Firefighters blamed the woman's clutter -- belongings filled the unit's hallway to all but about an 18-inch passageway -- as hindering their rescue efforts. Last May, fire destroyed another building in the same complex but there were no injuries. Both buildings were without sprinklers.

Even if high-rise communities vote not to install the sprinklers, their buildings will still have to have a safety system that passes inspection by local fire departments, said attorney Ken Direktor, chairman of the Community Practice Group for the Fort Lauderdale-based Becker & Poliakoff law firm. Owners living in a high-rise can vote again in three years to install the sprinklers if they change their minds.

Miami Beach safety analyst Moore said fire departments routinely put out fires in high-rises. The buildings that had sprinklers kept the fires from spreading to other units, he said.

But Buerk, president of the 61-unit Pompano Beach condo, said the sprinkler retrofitting would be impractical at his building: The ceilings at his high-rise don't have room for installing overhead sprinklers. And it might backfire if the sprinklers didn't work or even went off, causing water damage when there wasn't a fire, he said.

Lisa Magill, another Becker & Poliakoff attorney, said other condo leaders fear their buildings would be damaged during the sprinkler installation. It is much harder to retrofit than to put ones in new buildings, attorney Berger said.

But Bert Cohen, who lives in a 16-floor condo complex in Sunny Isles Beach, said he hasn't had any problems since his association installed sprinklers about 10 years ago.

"I think everyone should have them,'' he said.

A state report found that several South Florida condo complexes were able to install sprinklers throughout their entire complex for about $1,700 per unit or under, including the Corinthian in Miami Beach and Forest Place Tower in North Miami. Two Aventura condo complexes, the Biscayne Cover and Biscayne Clipper, installed sprinklers only in the common areas for as low as $595 per unit, the report found.

Cyber Citizens for Justice's Bergemann said a sprinkler system will pay for itself in about six years due to lower insurance premiums and higher resale prices of units in the condominium complex.

If buildings can't afford sprinklers throughout, then condo associations should at least install them in older buildings' hallways and lobbies to give people a place to escape to, Bergemann said.

Condo owners who do not live in high-rises said at a recent Pembroke Pines town hall meeting that they were more concerned about the state's other new condo provisions, such as one that doesn't require owners to insure the inside of their condo unit.

By law, a condominium association is required to insure and make any repairs to its building's roof, walls, windows, doors, foundation and electrical wiring. That leaves the individual unit owners responsible for kitchen cabinets, countertops, window treatments, wallpaper, rugs and other contents in their unit.

Attorney Magill recommended insuring even if the state doesn't require it.

"I think everyone should have insurance,'' Bergemann agreed. "Don't forget if you live below a unit where a guy's washer hose breaks and your unit is flooded you will pay for the damages, because he didn't do it on purpose and you can't prove negligence.''