tampabay.com

Hurricane shutters can't stay up all summer

By RICHARD WHITE
Published April 17, 2005


Q: I'm a winter resident from Long Island. When I leave in the spring, I want to close my accordion hurricane shutters and reopen them when I return in November. But our condo's rules say shutters can be closed only when a hurricane warning is issued and must be reopened within 48 hours after the storm passes. To my way of thinking, the board is denying me the right to protect my property. Can it do this?

A: A unit left shuttered for six months is unattractive. It sends a big message that no one is home, hence it's a good target for theft; and overall it devalues the building. Rules such as the one you cite are common in Florida. You need to find someone - a friend or neighbor or business - to install and remove your shutters when a hurricane threatens.

Absentee owners

Q: What are the responsibilities of the board after a hurricane to winter residents who are not here to check on their units?

A: Owners are responsible for dealing with their property or arranging for someone else to do so. The board can create policies to cover absentee owners: for example, requiring that they remove all items and furniture from their balconies before they depart. The policy could also deal with when storm shutters may be installed and removed, which would require that absentee owners make arrangements for someone to do this.

Management and board members will be too busy after a hurricane dealing with cleanup and repair of common areas to be able to inspect units and report to absentee owners.

This is why you need reserves

Q: Suppose the roof of our condo is damaged by a hurricane. Can we withdraw funds from several of our reserve accounts? These would be accounts other than our roof fund, which is badly depleted because we installed a new roof two years ago.

A: Either do a special assessment or call a members' meeting to approve use of the reserves. Many of your owners should have insurance that includes loss-assessment coverage. If the board approves a special assessment, owners can report the loss as a claim and should be able to collect much of the cost of the special assessment.

Let this be a lesson to study your insurance coverage and your deductibles. I strongly urge that your reserves for next year include an amount to meet your deductibles.

Penny-wise, pound foolish

Q: Our board declined to renew our insurance because of the high cost. If our buildings are damaged by a hurricane, who pays?

A: You and your neighbors will pay. In voting to go without insurance, the board may have violated its fiduciary duty to protect the assets of the association. You could sue the board, but that would be at your expense, and you might not recover enough to cover your repair costs. Dig deep, come up with the money, and start the repairs. Then elect a new board that will operate the association properly. This was a very expensive way to try to save money.

Employees need to prepare, too

Q: All of our employees were sent home when a hurricane watch was posted last summer. No one was on duty during the storm, and they didn't come back as soon as the watch was lifted. The management told the board that the staff couldn't come in, but some staff members told me they weren't called in. Is this good management? What can we do?

A: First, show a little compassion. Hurricanes are incredibly stressful, on you and on the employees. Like you, they needed to make sure before the storm that their families and homes were protected. After the storm, the roads may have been impassable, preventing them from returning to work, or they may have needed to stay home to repair damage.

I know what it's like to sustain losses in a hurricane, and I've had employees who were wiped out. It's fortunate that you sustained no damage from the hurricane. This is a good time for your board to review the recent hurricanes and develop an emergency plan.

Maintaining retention ponds

Q: Hurricane rains filled our retention ponds to overflowing and several homes were threatened. These ponds have never been serviced except to cut the grass. Is the association responsible for flooding and water damage to the homes?

A: No. Losses from acts of God, such as a hurricane, are usually at the expense of the owner and not a third party, i.e., the association.

You bring up an important fact about retention ponds or areas designed to hold floodwaters or storm runoff: These common areas require maintenance beyond just cutting grass. Every few years, the bottom should be removed or agitated, an expense that should be anticipated in the reserve budget.

Retention ponds collect rainwater and chemical runoff. The water percolates through the bottom of the pond, leaving a residue that requires removal every few years. Many of the ponds have a skimming device called a weir, which should be checked periodically to see that it is functioning properly. If the weir is plugged or fails to drain properly, it could be a major cause of the rising water and flooding.

Who's responsible for the balcony?

Q: Our condo was damaged in last summer's hurricanes. Our insurance company paid for the repairs inside our unit but won't pay for balcony repairs, saying that is a common area and the association is responsible. But the association won't pay for repainting the walls of our screened-in balcony. We added the screens, and the association says that changes its responsibility for maintenance inside the screens.

A: Maybe the addition of screens means there is no way for the painting contractor to enter the area without walking through your apartment. He may be reluctant to do so out of concern about damaging your apartment. Maybe he is charging extra to assume that responsibility and the board doesn't want to pay. Your association needs to explain its position.

Good-neighbor cleanup

Q: The county usually deals with collecting fallen trees and construction debris, but after all the hurricanes, workers were weeks behind. At the president's urging, the board voted 6 to 1 to hold a volunteer cleanup weekend. Unit owners trimmed trees, chipped the branches with a rented industrial chopper, hauled garbage in their own trucks to rented trash trailers, and dispensed mulch in the common areas. We were not insured for this work. Could the association be sued if someone were injured? The president says we were protected because they were volunteers.

A: Yes, the association can be sued, but the post-hurricane period is an extraordinary time, so extraordinary efforts may be called for. I know of one association where so many downed trees blocked the roads, cars couldn't get in and out. Volunteers pulled them out of the way. After last summer's storms we saw piles of debris and branches for weeks and months. They can create a health, safety and pest hazard. Your president is right: Working together can create a stronger, closer-knit community. Better to spend the weekend cleaning up than stand around complaining about why someone else doesn't do the job.

Rules during evacuation

Q: Our condo is in a mandatory evacuation area. Many owners chose to ride out the storm in their apartments rather than leave. No representative of management was there during the storm and no management phone numbers were available to the owners who stayed. All the exterior doors were left open, providing access to anyone off the street, including looters. We had only two security guards on duty at that time. The board has announced that unit owners will not have access to common areas during a storm, even though many of the common areas are safer than individual apartments.

A: The board has an obligation to protect common areas. If opening the doors during a storm is determined to best protect the building by allowing fire and police access in case of emergency, then the building should be open. Suppose there had been a fire: If the doors were locked and no one was available to open them to firefighters, what would have happened?

If it is determined that common areas should be locked down or closed off to protect the property, the board can do so. The board would have a hard time insisting that management employees remain behind when county emergency officials declared a mandatory evacuation. Think about the situation you would face under those circumstances if an employee were killed or injured in the hurricane.

Leave the generators alone

Q: During one of the recent hurricanes, our condo used a generator to power emergency lights on each floor, potable water pumps, fire pumps and elevators. The owners of six units unscrewed the emergency lights and, using an adapter, plugged extension cords into the socket and then plugged in their refrigerators, lights and other appliances. Someone reported them to the fire department, which required them to remove the extension cords . Another resident tripped over one of the extension cords. There has been quite the nasty exchange of e-mails over this.

A: The board should prohibit unit owners from plugging into the generators for personal use. This is a major fire hazard. You could have damaged equipment by overloading the generators. It presents the liability issue of someone tripping over the cords. In the hands of people who don't know what they're doing, generators can be very dangerous, creating fire hazards for others on the same circuit or shock hazards for utility workers trying to repair the lines. Whoever called the fire department did the right thing to protect the association. Nasty exchanges of e-mail are out of line.

-- Richard White is a licensed community associations manager. Write to him c/o Community Living, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Sorry, he can't take phone calls or provide personal replies by mail, but you can e-mail him at CAMquestions@cfl.rr.com Please include your name and city. Questions should concern association operations; legal opinions cannot be offered. For specific legal advice, contact an association attorney.

Readers may call the state Division of Condominiums Bureau of Customer Service at toll-free 1-800-226-9101 with questions or requests for materials. Access the Bureau of Condominiums Web site at www.state.fl.us/dbpr/lsc/index.shtml or write to Bureau of Customer Service, 1940 N Monroe St., Northwood Centre, Tallahassee, FL 32399-1032.