Lauderdale condo owners balk at board's decision

to force window upgrade

Article Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

Published December 5, 2005


FORT LAUDERDALE -- In most condos, the major financial decision to replace older windows with expensive hurricane glass is a personal one.

But at Americas on the Park condo on the barrier island, instead of a choice, residents will get a bill -- an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 apiece.

Condo owners in that high-rise on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale are not alone in wrestling with the fragility of their older windows and the issue of whether to replace them with glass that can withstand hurricane-force winds. But this building's leaders have taken it a step further than most, with a plan to force all owners in the 17-story building to pay for hurricane-resistant windows and sliding-glass doors.

Even owners who already paid to install hurricane glass before the storms will have to pay partial assessments to cover the costs for their neighbors, according to the building's residents and leaders. And those whose windows are protected by shutters will be forced to upgrade to new glass instead.

All without a vote of the individual condo owners.

"This to me is not just about our condo, it's about every condo everywhere," said resident Susan Gardner. "Our civil rights are being abused, and we don't have a damn thing to do about it."

Condo board President Pablo Vitaver said the board has an obligation to "secure the building" with new windows. He thinks the threat posed by future hurricanes overrides any requirement for a full condo vote.

"Nobody can have the choice of not replacing the windows. I don't think that's even the discussion," Vitaver said. "I think it would be crazy, a death wish."

Building manager Vinnie Catania said 24 or 25 of the building's 82 condos were damaged from broken windows or water during hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.

Windows shattered across the county during Wilma, especially in tall, older buildings like Americas on the Park. Once the winds breached the windows in some buildings, the real damage began. The insides of some condos and offices were ravaged.

State condominium ombudsman Virgil Rizzo, whose job was created by the state last year to help mediate condo disputes, recommend laws and educate owners, called the condo's move "outrageous."

Rizzo became aware of the case after complaints from residents and a consultation with Vitaver.

Residents pointed out that the legality of the deal is far from black and white. Two lawyers from the same firm gave the condo board conflicting opinions about whether a full vote is needed and whether the windows and sliding doors are "common elements" that fall under the condo association's responsibility.

A third lawyer hired by residents gave another opinion on the issue, and an attorney who sits on the board had yet another interpretation.

Rizzo said the focus shouldn't be on finding legal justifications. They're all neighbors, after all, he said.

"The most important issue before a condominium is whether the people are happy," Rizzo said, "not what's legally correct or what the attorneys think is legally correct."

Some residents at Americas on the Park are glad their 1977 condo will be brought up to the more stringent window standards that went into place in the mid-1990s. But the unusual method of forcing the upgrades is a sticking point, as is spreading the costs.

"If I felt I needed hurricane windows to protect my home -- because I love my home and these are gorgeous apartments, with great square footage -- I would get them," Gardner said. "But just because someone thinks I have to get them? My shutters are fine, and they protect the place great, so why do I have to get these windows?" Resident A. Hal Faulkner said he thinks the windows should be replaced as insurance against a larger storm, even though "all of us who have shutters suffered no damage."

But, he said, not this way.

"We don't want this issue forced on us like this."