Old Code vs. New Code: Miami Beach condo president forced to change railing

(WSVN) - Times change, in many things for the better, but when it comes to codes, it can be painful and expensive. It’s why owners of historic condos on Miami Beach are saying, “Wait, we need help,” and so they called Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.

The older parts of South Florida can be picturesque. Especially when the buildings are wonderfully kept classics.

Joe Tropea, wants to save railings: “It’s a beautiful old building. I believe it was built in 1951, and it’s got that old Art Deco feel.”

The Blue Sky condos on Miami Beach — a pretty property with very distinctive handrails — are listed on the national and local historic registers.

Joe Tropea: “The railings are antique. Wrought iron handmade railings. Very intricate design, as you can see”

And then the present slapped the past with a code violation over those railings.

Joe Tropea: “It’s a nightmare.”

The code in 1951 required the railings on the two-story building to be 36 inches high. However, the State of Florida now requires them to be 42 inches tall.

And so…

Joe Tropea: “Now they must be raised to 42 inches.”

Joe Tropea is the condo president. Since Miami Beach Fire wanted them raised six inches, he talked to several engineers about plans to get a permit from the building department to raise the railings.

Joe Tropea: “Every single one of them told me, ‘You will not get a permit from the building department.'”

If the railings could not be raised, Joe was told, they would have to be replaced. His next step: the city planning department.

Joe Tropea: “From the planning department’s perspective, if we rip these out, we then have to replace them with something that looks identical.”

The cost to install 500 feet of wrought iron railings would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, far too much for the 25 condo owners.

Joe Tropea: “We respect the authority of the Miami Beach Fire Department. We want to comply will all safety regulations, but we also want to do it without bankrupting our people here.”

Joe’s final stop: the Historic Preservation Board. They told him they couldn’t help, and he had to abide by the new code for the old building.

Joe Tropea: “It’s a bureaucratic maze. I can’t do it. I am trying, but I am not succeeding.”

Joe and his neighbors have a simple solution: leave the railings as they have been for nearly 70 years.

Joe Tropea: “Gorgeous, strong as a bull. Go out there and shake them; you can’t move them. To rip those out makes no sense.”

Well, Howard, can the new code overrule the old code?

Howard Finkelstein, 7News legal expert: “The law is clear. The new code overrides the old code. There is no such thing as grandfathered in, and if the code changes and you get cited, you have to look for exemptions, or find a way to pay for the changes.”

Give Miami Beach credit for finding a way to help the owners. Miami Beach Fire Chief Virgil Fernandez told me his department has no choice and has to cite the buildings under the state code.

But he had a solution. Chief Fernandez said the department would stop enforcing the violations to give the owners time to try to convince the state legislature to change the code in order to allow the shorter railings at places like Blue Sky.

Joe then got an email making it official. That the city was holding off enforcement until the Florida legislature can look at the codes.

And Howard said, if that fails, Joe has another option.

Howard Finkelstein: “If 80 percent of the units in a building have someone 55 and older living there, the property can receive an exemption, and that will allow the railings to stay as they are.”

Joe Tropea: “I don’t know how to express our gratitude.”

Joe now has hope that those wrought iron railings may not have to be adapted or destroyed.

Joe Tropea: “Thank you, Help Me Howard. Thank you, Patrick.”

We will be watching this to see what happens to Blue Sky’s railings, and the railings on all the other old buildings on the beach. And while it’s frustrating and frightening for the property owners, it does make sense the state wants the rails taller and closer together so a child can’t fall over or squeeze through the railings.

Railing about a problem you have? Ready to iron things out? Maybe we have the code to raise up your hopes of getting a solution.

CONTACT HELP ME HOWARD:
Email: helpmehoward@wsvn.com
Reporter: Patrick Fraser at pfraser@wsvn.com
Miami-Dade: 305-953-WSVN
Broward: 954-761-WSVN

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