Florida Bar creates task force to review condo laws after Surfside collapse

The task force will make recommendations to Gov. DeSantis and state lawmakers.
A search and rescue team members climb the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)
A search and rescue team members climb the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP) [ AL DIAZ | AP ]
Published July 8, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Bar has assembled a collection of experts to conduct a thorough review of the state’s condominium laws and make policy recommendations to state lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis that could prevent future tragedies like the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside.

The task force, which is scheduled to meet for the first time Friday, will be reviewing state laws and regulations that govern, among many things, how condominium boards operate and manage reserves for maintenance and repair costs, as well as how often condominium buildings need to undergo inspections.

“We will determine if there are any changes that we would recommend through legislation or regulation that could prevent the likelihood of another Champlain Towers South tragedy,” William Sklar, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Law and chair of the task force, told the Miami Herald in an interview.

The deadly collapse of the 136-unit oceanfront high rise has placed the state’s condo rules and regulations under intense scrutiny. So far, DeSantis and Republican legislative leaders maintain policy decisions will be weighed after an investigation into the collapse is complete, noting that it would be ”reckless to speculate what changes need to be made at this point.”

Related: Surfside tragedy rattles Florida's condo insurance industry

But more stringent condo law requirements may be needed, Sklar said, and the task force’s recommendations could come as early as September, when state lawmakers are scheduled to start holding legislative committee hearings in Tallahassee.

“We believe we have a very limited window. Not that we are in a rush, but we’re hoping to make recommendations in time for the next legislative session [in January],” Sklar said. “I believe we will do our work in about a 90-day period.”

Whether the recommendations will be accepted remains to be seen. In the meantime, Sklar and other experts say the tragedy has exposed weaknesses in the state’s building inspection process and how condominium associations operate that could be potentially be remedied.

“In my view, and we will see if others agree, the inspection requirements need to be uniform statewide,” Sklar said. “It’s not Miami-Dade that is under scrutiny, in my mind, it is whether there is a statewide uniform standard and whether it should be done sooner than 40 years.”

Miami-Dade and Broward counties, for example, are the only Florida counties that require aging high-rises to go through reinspections after they reach 40 years of age. If buildings fail to make needed repairs, they could lose their occupancy license.

“We are going to look at a uniform statewide procedure for building inspections, structural inspections, and maybe they should occur in a shorter time frame, maybe it needs to be 10 years from completion or 20 years,” Sklar said.

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Another issue that will be reviewed is whether the state should have stricter rules that require condominium associations to maintain financial reserves so they can promptly pay for needed building repairs, Sklar said.

Florida law requires condominium associations to produce an annual budget and to fund a reserve budget for “capital expenditures and deferred maintenance.”

But there is a caveat. Once the reserve budget has been determined, state law allows a majority of the members at a condominium board meeting to lessen, reduce or waive the reserve requirement. When that decision is made, it must be disclosed to owners on the first page of the annual budget.

Related: DeSantis won't commit to review of aging buildings after Surfside tragedy

The problem, Sklar says, is that some associations have voted to save money and waive reserves to avoid shouldering huge special assessments.

“I am not saying we take away the power or discretion of the board totally, but we may to make it more precise, more specific so board members know what they must do to protect the lives of their residents,” Sklar said.

“The idea is not to regulate or impose more laws on someone. But there are life safety items.”