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Palm Beach County leaders discuss re-certification program for 'tall and large-scale buildings'

County currently has unsafe building ordinance to address potential dangers
Palm Beach County commissioners meet on July 13, 2021.jpg
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-13 17:14:57-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The safety of multi-story buildings in Palm Beach County took center stage on Tuesday, nearly three weeks after the tragic and deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside.

The Palm Beach County Building Division asked county commissioners for direction in developing a re-certification program for certain tall and large-scale buildings in the county.

"Clearly something went wrong, and the existing program down [in Miami-Dade County] didn't identify it," Palm Beach County building official Doug Wise said of the June 24 collapse that killed at least 95 people.

Palm Beach County currently does not have a 40-year building inspection or re-certification program like Miami-Dade and Broward counties. However, Palm Beach County does have an unsafe building ordinance that relies on complaints from residents and property owners to identify unsafe structures.

Wise said the Palm Beach County Building Division met with building officials, contractors, structural engineers, and local leaders on July 6 about creating a countywide re-certification program.

The group agreed a 40-year plan would be too long to wait in-between inspections and said factors like a building's age, location, height, type of construction, exposure to the ocean, and other potential risks would have to be weighed to determine an official re-certification timeline.

"When you're dealing with the foundations, different buildings can behave differently," Wise said. "As long as they're maintained, life is good."

"Are we aware of any imminent situations, any building deficiency or structure that we should be aware of that causes this group of officials to be alarmed?" Mayor Dave Kerner asked.

"No. Not to my knowledge," Wise responded.

Ultimately, county commissioners did not vote on issuing guidance regarding a mandatory re-certification program, but agreed to continue researching and discussing the issue.

"Perhaps we're headed in that direction, but let's develop this a little bit more," Kerner said.

According to the Palm Beach County Building Division, 384 condominium buildings in the county were built before 1980, making them older than Champlain Towers South.

Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth said there is a need for a re-certification program and suggested putting the issue on the 2022 election ballot to make it a uniform, countywide ordinance that all local municipalities must follow.

"Re-certification is necessary," Weinroth said. "This collapse has identified a problem."

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay argued there needs to be a statewide re-certification mandate.

"If a couple other counties decide not to do anything and something catastrophic happens in those counties, everybody's insurance rates are going to be affected," McKinlay said. "There are some things that need to be regulated at the state level. And this is something that needs to be done at the state level."

The re-certification process typically involves a team of professional and licensed engineers inspecting each building in-depth to insure they're structurally and electrically safe for residents to live in.

Commissioner Maria Sachs called for an audit of buildings in Palm Beach County, given that many of them are more than 40 years old.

"Some of our buildings were built in the 60s and 70s," Sachs said. "Since that time, we've had hurricanes, we've had climate change, we have rising seas. And what we need is we need to know that our structures are safe. Whether it's a school, whether it's a condo, whether it's a commercial building."

In an email obtained by WPTV Contact 5, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker told commissioners and other county officials on June 27 that she's already started discussing with staff "the review of our rules and regulations and how best to address re-certification of high-rise structures."

Email from Verdenia Baker
This is the email that Verdenia Baker sent to Palm Beach County officials after the Surfside building collapse.

Several municipalities in Palm Beach County, including West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, have said they're also considering making changes to their building regulations.