The state agency regulating condominiums says all condos — not just high rises — must install fire sprinkler systems, unless they vote to opt-out of the costly requirement by the end of the year.
The opinion means that thousands of two- and three-story apartment buildings, many of them comprised of affordable units at complexes like Century Village and elsewhere around the county, will have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit with sprinkler systems or have association members vote against it by Dec. 31.
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The latest version of the law, Florida statutes section 718, took out wording that specified the fire safety requirement applied only to buildings taller than 75 feet, about seven stories. That left associations and their lawyers unclear on whether shorter buildings also would have to add sprinklers.
On Thursday, in response to an inquiry by The Palm Beach Post, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation said indeed they would.
“Generally speaking, the fire sprinkler requirement applies to all residential condominiums,” said Travis Keels, deputy director of communications for the DBPR.
That, despite an opinion by the Division of State Fire Marshal that the state fire code requires only high rise buildings to retroactively install sprinklers. But the division said it’s the DBPR that makes the call when it comes to Florida statutes concerning condos.
Associations can have unit owners vote to exempt their buildings from the requirement, but some fear that with snowbirds out of town, many associations won’t get the votes or paperwork completed by the Dec. 31 deadline.
Condo owner insurance premiums would probably go down when sprinklers go in, but association dues would go up to cover the installation, condo association lawyer Kara Tanis said. That’s a burden on seniors with fixed incomes, she said. “There’s no extra money. I’ve been recommending people opt out.”
Tanis estimated that installing sprinklers can cost anywhere from $600 to $8,000 per unit, depending on the building and its condition. For an average building, $2,000 per unit is a reasonable estimate, she said.
“What’s the purpose in the first place?” asked Century Village owner Montgomery Rahmayer. “How many fires do we have in Century Village, for God’s sake?”
Attorney Jeffrey Rembaum, a specialist in association law, says associations should seek legal guidance. It wouldn’t surprise him if someone injured in a fire in a low-rise sued that building’s association, alleging it ducked its responsibility if it didn’t install sprinklers or conduct a vote to opt out of having them, he said.
It’s still not clear the DBPR position is what lawmakers intended but associations with low-rise buildings should play it safe by assuming the law applies to them and conducting proper membership votes to opt out, he said.
Century Village’s United Civic Organization (UCO), essentially a master association for the development’s hundreds of buildings, distributed an information packet, explaining the simplest way for its associations to have members vote to opt out of the sprinkler requirement, by written consent. “We did all the legwork for the associations,” UCO President David Israel said. “We’re not attempting to interpret the law. We’re saying, ‘Why take the risk? Opt out unless you have a lot of money,’ because it’s very expensive to retrofit, especially large buildings.”
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