Guidelines are almost non-existent for deck inspections at South Florida eateries

07/06/2013 5:19 PM

07/06/2013 10:25 PM

South Florida’s strict building codes have put a halt to most restaurants and bars building decks that jut out over open water. But the ones that remain have been decaying for decades in salty, murky water under a blazing sun without any oversight.

The main reason: Many cities follow the South Florida Building Code, which requires a review of commercial property 40 years after a structure is built, then every 10 years after.

In fact, following the deck collapse at Shuckers Bar and Grill in North Bay Village, the Miami Herald found that there is no centralized system for informing property owners when an examination is due. A survey of the process shows rules vary by municipality, making deck inspections an inconsistent, confusing and random operation.

Just before halftime of a June 13 Miami Heat playoff win in San Antonio, Shuckers’ 120-foot deck snapped like a toothpick, pitching some 100 cheering Heat fans into Biscayne Bay.

Miraculously, no one died as they plunged into four feet of dark, debris-filled water. More than a dozen people were injured; 15 were taken to area hospitals. When rescuers arrived, they found the patio at the popular eatery had collapsed in a V-shape, with the seawall ripping completely away from the main restaurant.

Miami-Dade records show the deck was built some time in the 1960s — and North Bay Village records show it has not been inspected since.

North Bay Village Chief Building Official Raul Rodriguez signed off on the 40-year recertification earlier this year, apparently unaware that the deck was not part of the inspection.

Steve Jawitz, the licensed engineer who did the work, said he never looked at the deck, and that it was not required.

However, Rodriguez said he assumed the deck was inspected because the South Florida Building Code, which the village follows, requires all building and structures on a property to be inspected after 40 years.

Bureaucracy also is to blame for deteriorating decks. In Miami-Dade, the county sometimes sends out alerts to municipalities that inspections are due on certain buildings. But the actual responsibility lies with the city to contact the property owner. And some city building officials have no idea that properties are due an inspection.

County Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera said his office can generate a list of 40-year-old buildings, but it’s more of a courtesy than a requirement. He said some cities ask for it by email, others through a phone call.

“It’s willy-nilly,” he said.

The inspections must be done by an engineer licensed by the state. The results then are submitted to the city, to be signed off by a building official.

The only exception to the 40-year inspection rule is if a deck is renovated or rebuilt, which requires new permits and inspections.

A day after the Shuckers deck collapse, Rodriguez said it appeared to have succumbed to old age, with salt water deteriorating the concrete, causing the steel rods inside to become corroded.

The South Florida heat, combined with the salty air and water, often weakens decks long before the 40 years are up, “especially when wood is in the water, when all the connections are just rotting away,” said Eugene Santiago, a veteran structural engineer and building chief for the Village of Key Biscayne.

“You have to look for it,” he said.

In 2010, property owner Charles Grentner went through an expensive permitting process to replace the deck, but the work was never done. Sources say Grentner was involved in negotiations to sell the property around the same time, but the efforts fell through.

Grentner has turned down repeated requests for interviews about the collapse.

Already, one lawsuit has been filed, and more are expected. In coming months, questions are expected to be raised about who exactly is liable for the collapse — the owner, the engineer who did the inspection or the village building official who signed off on it.

Rodriguez, who contracts with North Bay Village to serve as its chief building official, is a principal in a company called CAP Government, which offers inspections to small municipalities, colleges and other institutions.

He also serves as the building official in El Portal, Bal Harbour, Cutler Ridge, and Aventura, county records show.

During a recent press conference about Shuckers — and with the mayor and village manager by his side — Rodriguez described himself as a North Bay Village employee,

Legal experts say Rodriguez’s description likely was to protect himself from possible lawsuits.

But Rodriguez isn’t likely to be a target, said Miami attorney Richard Lydecker.

“The business owner has the obligation to keep the place safe. The engineer should have inspected the deck, and, if not, made it crystal clear why,” Lydecker said. “What’s likely to happen is both owner and engineer will be sued, and both will point fingers at each other. Then it will be up to the courts.”

The village itself is shielded from major liability because of sovereign immunity, meaning it cannot be sued for more than $200,000 without legislative approval.

Decks built over water were more prevalent in South Florida before Miami-Dade created its current building code in the mid-1970s, following a deadly downtown Miami building collapse that left several fatalities.

Later, the creation of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management in the 1970s, coupled with the state’s effort to clean up Biscayne Bay, left little room for decks that threatened sensitive ecosystems, blocking sunlight craved by certain seabed grasses.

“Before DERM, it was more common,” said Susan Markley, Miami-Dade’s director of the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, which used to be DERM. “After, you could still get approval for repairs, but you couldn’t get new ones. They wanted to make sure the water was reserved for water uses.”

The Florida Keys followed suit with a flood ordinance that also limited what could be built over water. But the Keys ordinance only covers unincorporated Monroe County, meaning municipalities like Islamorada and Key West can build as city leaders wish.

The result: More open water decks are spread throughout the Keys than in Miami-Dade.

A Broward search turned up a deck over water at Capone’s Flicker Lite Pizza & Raw Bar on the Intracoastal, 1014 N. Ocean Dr., in Hollywood. The popular eatery is 51 years old — and has never had its 40-year recertification.

City public affairs spokeswoman Raelin Storey said Capone’s was first notified in August 2008 that its inspection was due, then again in November 2011.

“We have not received a response to either of those notices,” Storey said.

Richard Capone, Flicker Lite’s owner, said he knows his establishment is due for a 40-year inspection, but the restaurant is undergoing renovations after a car rammed the front last year.

“It’s hard to certify a building when you are under construction,” he said. “As soon as the construction is complete, we will get the certification.”

His dock, first built in the 1980s, has been worked on several times, he says. It juts out only two to three feet from the seawall and the majority of the weight is on concrete.

“My dock isn’t going anywhere,” he said.

In Islamorada, the Tiki Bar at Holiday Isle has a dance floor directly over water at Whale Harbor Channel.

The Islamorada Fish Company has more than 30 tables that seat 125 directly over the open water. And the Pier House Marina and Sunset Pier at Ocean Key Resort in Key West also have bars and restaurants over the water.

Jerry Smith, Monroe County’s Building Official, said deck standards over water are pretty stiff in his county, with a strong material required for anything made of metal, including the hangers and clips that link pilings to a deck.

Because of the county’s flood law, very few decks, if any, were grandfathered in after 1975 and no new decks were built, Smith said.

But he acknowledged that’s only true for unincorporated Monroe, which doesn’t include the Islamorada Fish Company or the Tiki Bar.

In Miami-Dade, establishments like the Rusty Pelican, Monty’s Raw Bar in Coconut Grove and the Black Point Ocean grill at Black Point Marina in South Dade may appear to have platforms over the water, but they are not. They’re all either on the mainland or on landfill. In Miami, patrons have been dining at a quaint little Greek restaurant, Ouzos Greek Island Taverna , on the Little River in the city’s north end for years, many sitting outside on what appeared to be a deck of considerable age over open water.

The restaurant recently closed and a new eatery is expected to open there soon.

City records show the building was erected in 1946, but no one knows whether the deck has ever been inspected.

“We don’t have those records,” said Miami Building Official Peter Iglesias. The city’s records on 40-year inspections are at least seven years out of date, he said.

He’s now looking to update software that will inform his office when inspections are due.

“We’re going to create an automatic letter in the computer system,” he said.

Meanwhile, Iglesias said he will be sending the property owner a 90-day notice to comply with an inspection order.

County records show Mohammed Khan owns the Northeast 78th Street property. He could not be reached for comment.

Another example of the utter randomness of the inspection process is Duffy’s Sports Grill, a popular North Miami Beach Intracoastal hangout with a spacious wooden deck over the water.

Dozens of large, state-of-the-art, high definition televisions hang above bars and tables and couches — all outdoors, over water.

City records indicate the deck was erected in 1986 when it was Shooters Waterfront Café.

The property, at 3969 NE 163rd St., was renovated two years ago, records show. However, the deck was not part of the renovation, according to the former project manager.

By all accounts, the deck is completely safe, yet its pilings have rested in Intracoastal waters for 27 years without an inspection — because one is not required.

“We only inspect the deck if they’re going to [renovate or] build a new deck,” said North Miami Beach Building Official Daniel Ozuna. “They pull a permit, we do the inspection.”

Miami Herald staff writers Cammy Clark and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.

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