Destin, Fla. among first local governments to consider condo inspections after Surfside collapse

"This is one of those situations in which I feel like everybody would like to be proactive, rather than horribly reactive"

By Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News
DESTIN, Fla. — The city that calls itself "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village" has grown into a concrete coastal mecca, home to more than 150 condominiums, including 60 that tower six stories or higher.

Destin's leaders were alerted along with the rest of state and country two weeks ago to the vulnerabilities of aging residential properties when the 12-story Champlain Towers East condominium in Surfside near Miami collapsed June 24, likely due to structural deficiencies.

At their Tuesday meeting, Destin City Council members voted to have staff explore methods by which the city might initiate an inspection program to periodically monitor the structural health of its condominiums.

Gini Gonte visits the Surfside Wall of Hope & Memorial on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, as she honors her friends Nancy Kress Levin and Jay Kleiman, who lost their lives after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.
Gini Gonte visits the Surfside Wall of Hope & Memorial on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, as she honors her friends Nancy Kress Levin and Jay Kleiman, who lost their lives after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. (Photo/Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)

"This is one of those situations in which I feel like everybody would like to be proactive, rather than horribly reactive, in terms of just a devastating situation," Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell said before initiating the discussion of establishing inspections.

If it is decided July 19 to move forward on a recommendation, Destin would become one of the first governments in Florida to take decisive action in the aftermath of the deadly collapse.

At the time of the Surfside collapse, only Broward and Miami-Dade counties required regular reviews of aging high-rise buildings towering six stories or higher. A required 40-year review was soon to get underway at Champlain Towers East when a portion of the structure caved in.

The impetus for requiring high-rise buildings that are 40 years or older to be inspected for safety was born of another tragedy almost 50 years ago.

A downtown Miami building that housed the Drug Enforcement Agency collapsed on a summer day in 1974, killing seven people and injuring 16.

Nearly a year later, Miami-Dade County updated the South Florida Building Code to include mandatory recertification of buildings that are 40 years or older, with inspections every 10 years thereafter. Broward County followed decades later.

Although there hasn't been a disaster of that magnitude in Northwest Florida, 11 people were injured, several severely, at Destin's Sandpiper Cove condominiums in March 2017 when a second-floor balcony they were standing on collapsed.

Any building, correctly constructed, should last for 50 years or more, according to licensed structural engineer Emad Mousavi. But that doesn't mean they should not be inspected regularly.

"There are two different stages in the life of a building: the very early on stage and the aging phase," Mousavi said. "The problems come in when the building is aging — is it being properly maintained?"

In a warm, humid area, corrosion is always a danger, and when salt air is added to the mix, concerns are exacerbated, Mousavi said. If the rebar placed inside concrete to bolster its strength gets exposed to air and corrosion sets in, the rebar will expand up to seven times its original volume and destroy the concrete around it.

"It takes many years to get to the point where it is no longer safe," he said. "But if you see any signs, it likely means the building is already unsafe."

Mousavi said annual or bi-annual inspections are the safest way to ensure structural integrity and keep repair costs down if problems are found.

"Unfortunately, this is not something people do on a regular basis," he said. "They ignore it either until it's too bad and people start complaining or something tragic happens."

Plans being considered in Destin would call for a structural inspection conducted "every few years," according to Ramswell. The recommendation to come before the council will lay out whether it would be more advantageous for city officials to conduct the inspections themselves or for condominium owners to do the inspecting and file required paperwork with the city.

"We may not do it in house, but I think someone needs to do something," Ramswell said. "I think it's important."

The city staff was also directed to consider the pros and cons of hiring a structural engineer.

At present, Destin, along with Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa and Walton counties and the vast majority of cities and counties across the state discontinue their inspection relationship with a condominium following the signing of a certificate of occupancy.

"Once they pass the final inspection, that's it," said Elliot Kampert, head of Okaloosa County's Growth Management Department.

"Recurring inspections are incumbent upon the facilities themselves," added County Administrator John Hofstad.

At present, Kampert said calls or complaints of structural damage would be made to his department through the code enforcement division. If officers found something that suggested a clear structural issue, the county's building official would be called in.

Hofstad said that unless otherwise instructed by elected officials, he suspects the county will wait to see how Florida lawmakers react to the disaster in Surfside before taking action. The state Legislature convenes in January.

But as Destin City Councilman Dewey Destin pointed out in making the motion to have staff investigate an inspection process, there's no shortage of condominiums in this area have been standing for 40 years or more.

Two Destin condominiums, Club Destin Resort and Holiday Beach Resort, were among six structures appearing on the Okaloosa County Property Appraiser website's "condo list" as being built in 1960.

According to the website, Okaloosa County has 290 buildings that meet the criteria to appear on the condo list, and 72 of those are 40 years old or older. Among those is the 50-year-old El Matador on Okaloosa Island, which has the highest occupancy rate of any condominium in the county.

On Okaloosa Island, the county is bound by federal law to building heights no greater than 75 feet above the mean low-water level. The height restrictions don't apply to Fort Walton Beach to the west or to Destin and unincorporated areas east of the Marler Bridge.

Fort Walton Beach, however, has worked closely with the Air Force to control building heights so as not to impede the missions of neighboring Eglin Air Force Base or Hurlburt Field, City Manager Michael Beedie said. Building construction along Santa Rosa Sound in the city is limited to 120 feet.

Mousavi, the engineer, said the height of a condominium complex has no bearing on its vulnerability to structural damage.

"If it's built to design codes it doesn't matter whether it's 20 stories or two, it should be fairly safe," he said.

Walton County features 26 miles of Gulf-front beach. Its property appraiser's "condo list" includes the names of nearly 400 properties, many of which are multi-storied buildings. As in Okaloosa County, once a certificate of occupancy has been signed, inspection for structural issues are left to the owners of the building.

"Once it's CO'ed we don't do anything else out there," said Billy Bearden, the county's building official.
Most, if not all, of the Walton County condominiums appear to have been built after 1981. But some, such as the Beachside Condo at Seagrove built in 1983 and Edgewater Condominiums built in 1984, are approaching their 40th birthdays.

Suzanne Harris, the president and CEO at Edgewater, said ever since the parking area of her building was damaged by a hurricane, the homeowners association has taken a proactive stance on structural maintenance.

"Every time we have a hurricane, we evacuate the building and we don't let anyone back in until we have a structural engineer look it over. and certify it as safe for re-entry," Harris said. "If we know there's a life safety issue, we fix it and assess the owners. If they don't like it, they can find another place to live."

Harris said, in her opinion, beachfront rental properties across the Panhandle should, in the wake of the Surfside condo collapse, bring in engineers to examine structural integrity.

"They all need to have their concrete re-evaluated. All of their boards of directors need to get very concerned," she said.
(c)2021 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)

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