Rising insurance expense prompted board to pursue the undertaking well before Legislature responded to Surfside disaster
One year ago, on June 24, 2021, part of the 12-floor Champlain Towers South condominium complex collapsed in Surfside. As the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) points out on its website, that incident “happened suddenly and has resulted in mass casualties.”
Ninety-eight people died.
The very next month, the members of the Board of Directors of the Frances Carlton Condominium complex on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota received a notice saying that their property insurance was being renewed, but with “a big increase in our rate,” John Mercer, president of the condominium association, told The Sarasota News Leader in a June 20 telephone interview.
“Getting property insurance is a real challenge in Florida,” he added.
The association’s insurance broker “specifically asked me whether we had a recent structural evaluation,” Mercer continued, in the wake of the Surfside incident. Companies providing insurance to condominium associations were concerned, he noted, because that collapse.
The Frances Carlton, which was built in 1924, had not had a recent evaluation, Mercer said; he speculated that few associations — if any — had pursued the type of detailed inspection that the companies were seeking.
That was a big part of his motivation, he pointed out, to ensure that such an evaluation took place before the Frances Carlton board needed to renew the insurance policy this next year.
The resulting June 3 inspection report, produced by Karins Engineering in Sarasota, found that the three-story complex “does not appear to have any substantial structural deterioration” and that it did not need to undergo the “more intensive Phase 2 inspection” required by a new state law that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed on May 26.
That measure, which went into effect immediately, calls for every condominium building with three or more stories that is older than 25 years and within 3 miles of the coast — or older than 30 years — to complete a Phase 1 “milestone inspection” by Dec. 31, 2024 and every 10 years thereafter.
After researching the issue with city staff, Jason Bartolone, communications specialist with the City of Sarasota, told the News Leader in a June 22 email that the Frances Carlton Condominium’s milestone inspection is “the first and only [one] the City has received to date.”
Bartolone did note that owners of affected properties have until Dec. 31, 2024 to complete their Phase 1 inspections.
Then he reported, “The City is in the process of developing plans to meet its obligations related to the new state law. This includes:
- “Identifying and notifying the affected properties. Our Building Official’s initial estimate is about 190 properties in the City … are affected. We’re still compiling a list and analyzing [Geographic Information System] GIS map data to identify properties within 3 miles of the coastline that are affected.
- “Receiving and reviewing inspection reports sent to the City to ensure they comply with the requirements, and creating a database for the reports.
- “Preparing an ordinance that outlines penalties and fines for non-compliance.”
Bartolone added, “We haven’t yet reviewed the first inspection report that was filed. Our staff also anticipates that there may be additional requirements or changes still to come from the Florida Building Commission and State Fire Marshal.”
In response to a News Leader request for information about county condominium complexes whose owners would need to respond to the state law, Sarasota County Building Official Steve Bell wrote in a June 21 email, “I have not received any milestone inspection reports as of this e-mail.” He also pointed out that any building that received a certificate of occupancy certificate on or before July 1, 1992 is required to have the inspection performed by Dec. 31, 2024.
“On or before January 1, 2023,” Bell continued, the affected buildings “existing on or before July 1, 2022 must provide the division of Florida Condominium, Timeshare, and Mobile Homes with information on how many buildings, height of buildings, county in which the buildings are located, and addresses. This information is then posted to the division’s website.”
Getting to ‘the front of the line’
In late August 2021, the Frances Carlton board entered into an agreement with Karins Engineering, so the firm could undertake the structural evaluation. At that time, Mercer told the News Leader, association boards around the state were buzzing with the expectation that the Florida Legislature would approve a new law requiring such inspections.
In a June 16 email, Mercer pointed out to the News Leader that the Frances Carlton board members agreed that having already arranged for an evaluation “would then give us a running start if and when a new law went into effect, and would also be just a good thing to have for a 98 year-old building, regardless of any legal requirement.”
(In a May 26 Washington Post article reporting on DeSantis’ signing of the bill, state Sen. Jason Pizzo of Surfside warned that the state does not have “enough structural engineers to handle the workload required to make sure all the state’s high-rise condominiums are safe.” A legislative analysis conducted earlier this year found more than 1.5 million condominium units in Florida operated by nearly 28,000 associations; “more than 912,000 are older than 30 years and are the home to more than 2 million residents,” The Post pointed out.)
Last summer, Mercer continued, “For all the talk we were reading online [about the state’s need to address the concerns raised by the Champlain Towers incident],” DeSantis did not call the Legislature into special session.
With the Karins contract in place, Mercer said, the board decided in late January of this year to ask the firm to proceed with its evaluation of the Frances Carlton, with the proviso that “we needed [the report] before July.”
Karins scheduled its work to begin in February, Mercer noted.
“We got to May,” he added, “and they were going to finish up.” The final inspection was scheduled for June 1, he pointed out, “when, lo and behold, the Legislature … suddenly passed the inspection law.”
He sent that information to Karins, Mercer said. As a result, the firm was able to issue a report that complied with the facets of the new state law. “The words were right from the statute,” Mercer pointed out of the summary that the firm provided the Frances Carlton board.
“I’m absolutely confident we’re first in the state,” Mercer told the News Leader. “There was good planning,” he added, but the timing of the state action worked in the Frances Carlton’s favor. “We’re just hoping that it will help with the insurance.”
If insurance companies are smart, Mercer said, they will reward condominium associations that take quick action.
Nonetheless, he added, “At a minimum, it means we complied with the law before the crowd rushes to find engineers.”
Details from the Karins report for the Frances Carlton
As its website explains, “The Frances Carlton Condominium is a beautiful 1924 Mediterranean Revival, 20-unit, 3-story walk-up. The 16 one-bedroom units range in size from 660-724 [square feet].”
Of the four, two-bedroom units, the website adds, three range from 1,124 to 1,136 square feet, and the fourth comprises 1,395 square feet.
The complex was constructed “during the Florida land boom of the Roaring 20’s” and “opened in 1924 as furnished apartments for rental to northerners, as is reflected in the vintage wrought-iron gate in front that still shows the name ‘Frances Carlton Apartments,’” the website says.
“[T]his elegant Jazz Age building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984,” the website adds.
In its June 3 report, Karins Engineering points out that it “has completed a limited condition observation and evaluation of the building conditions and construction, as it relates to the building envelope and related structural components that are readily accessible, including the roof, walkways, interior stairways, bearing walls, floor slab on grade, basement floor slab, basement crawl space and related accessible structural components.”
The inspection began in the basement, Mercer told the News Leader, with a subcontractor — Driggers Engineering Services Inc. — hired by Karins to handle that work.
“We’re one of the few buildings in town with a basement,” he pointed out.
The Karins report added, “Our observations are intended to identify significant deficiencies, problems or on-going maintenance concerns that are visible at the time of our observations. The intent of our review is to ascertain the general condition of these components and to make recommendations for appropriate repair and protection.”
The board had given Karins copies of reports regarding the replacement of the roof in 2019, along with the exterior painting and waterproofing work undertaken in April, Mercer explained to the News Leader. Thus, the firm used language in the report saying it “was informed” of that work, he pointed out.
The report notes that “stucco remediation” was undertaken “where required” as part of the painting project. The document also says that stormwater runoff from the flat areas of the roof “has been piped to underground storm leaders” which carry it away from the building.
Among the variety of details in the report, it notes that the exterior railings “show only minor oxidation” and the sealant around windows is “in good condition for the most part.”
“Some deterioration of the original masonry mortar joints was observed near crawl space ventilation,” it continues. “We believe this weathering deterioration is consistent with a building of age 98 years and is caused by exposure to moist air and does not appear structurally significant at this time.”
That situation, the report adds, “will be addressed in the current waterproofing project being designed by [Karins] to provide waterproofing of basement walls and beneath basement slab via pressure injection,” with completion of the work expected within the next 12 months.
No water ponding was observed on the roof, the report notes.
“It was a relief,” Mercer said, to read the Karins report. He is only too aware, he added, of the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for.”
In the case of a 98-year-old building, he told the News Leader, “You cross your fingers and hope [it] passes.”
Nonetheless, Mercer said, “We do a really good job of trying to stay on top of maintenance.” Any building of that age, he pointed out, has its quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Referring again to the report, he added, “Hopefully, this is a signal to prospective owners that this board takes [structural issues seriously].”