The public feud between Surfside and Miami-Dade County over access to the site of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse may be nearing a resolution after a county attorney said Wednesday that Miami-Dade plans to turn over control of the property by the end of the month.
Possession of the collapse site, which is considered a crime scene under the county’s control, will be transferred to the court-appointed receiver representing the condominium association. The receiver, lawyer Michael Goldberg, will then give access to Surfside and other affected parties to conduct forensic engineering tests at the site.
That much was made clear during a court hearing Wednesday held as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by a survivor of the June 24 collapse. But there is no definitive timeline for when the forensic inspections will begin or what protocols affected parties will follow.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, who has butted heads with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava over access to the property, appeared before Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman on Wednesday expressing his concerns about the safety of buildings surrounding the doomed 12-story condo if an investigation is not carried out “sooner rather than later.”
Surfside, which hired an engineer to investigate the collapse, has repeatedly asked the county for access but the county has insisted that the site remain closed while a criminal investigation by county police and another probe by the National Institute of Standards and Technology continue.
He said the work is critical to determine the safety of nearby buildings, including Champlain Towers North, the “sister” building of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story structure that was built by the same developer in the same year. The building has not been evacuated and the town’s engineer has said there is no reason to believe it is in danger.
“We’ve got a virtually identical building in our town and we’ve also got other similarly situated buildings,” Burkett said. “We’ve got lives at stake potentially.”
Hanzman acknowledged the “controversy” between Surfside and the county and asked that protocols be in place in the next week to govern any third-party investigations. One concern he has is the destruction of evidence during testing. Goldberg, the receiver, said someone will videotape the inspections.
“Everybody will have an opportunity to get in and do the investigation they need,” Hanzman said.
Goldberg said he would develop protocols for site access and evidence sampling groups interested in inspecting the property.
Other affected parties interested in accessing the site: a team of class-action lawyers and Morabito Consultants, the engineering firm retained by the condo association as part of the 136-unit building’s 40-year recertification.
Allyn Kilsheimer, Surfside’s consulting engineer, said he tuned into the court hearing and instructed his team of subcontractors to be ready to begin work by the end of the month — although he is unsure when the county will officially turn over the property and what the protocols will be.
“I don’t believe it,” he said of the three-week timeline.
Kilsheimer said that, if allowed, his inspections would consist of taking samples of the concrete and reinforced steel of the structural components of the building, including foundations buried up to 70 feet underground, as well as of the soil and limestone itself.
His team will likely be equipped with a pickup truck fashioned with a drill rig and other handheld tools to do the work, and then transport the samples in a secure truck to a laboratory. He said he would share results with anyone who wanted them and videotape the process as well. Access to the off-site evidence center, where the above-ground components of the building are, will be just as important to determining the cause of the collapse, he said.
“We’re trying to understand the strength of the materials and the capacity of the materials,” he said.
Judge discusses sale of property
In other developments at Wednesday’s court hearing, Goldberg said he is preparing for the sale of the Collins Avenue property and expects the initial offering to developers to be ready by next week. Goldberg said he must first dissolve the condo association under state law and clear all the property titles before making the offering.
There will be a competitive bid process and the ultimate sale must be approved by Hanzman, who is overseeing all legal issues surrounding compensation for the victims and survivors of the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building on June 24.
On another track, Goldberg said the building’s insurance companies have voluntarily offered to pay out a total of $48 million in property and personal injury coverage — though a few logistical issues need to be resolved.
Goldberg said he has distributed more than $350,000 of the $1 million gift made by Miami attorney John Ruiz to about 60 Champlain Towers South victims for relocation expenses and burial costs for loved ones who died in the building collapse.
State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a North Miami Democrat who has been active in helping victims’ families and survivors, said many have expressed concern about cashing preliminary check payments from insurers out of fear that doing so will prevent them from eventually collecting total compensation for their loss of property and life.
Pizzo said “they are concerned about their place in line.”
Hanzman, the judge, noted “that’s a very important issue” and asked attorneys at the Miami-Dade Bar Association to assist the victims and survivors in explaining the consequences of cashing the insurance payouts as part of their overall compensation. The local bar association has agreed to volunteer its legal advice for free.
Lastly, attorney Harley Tropin, who is heading the class-action case representing any Champlain Towers South victims and survivors who want to join the lawsuit, said he plans to file a “consolidated” complaint by Aug. 16. For now, the class-action case has named only one defendant, the building’s condominium association. But Tropin said that other defendants will be added to the case within 90 to 120 days.
At the end of the hearing, Hanzman, the judge, said he wants to resolve the insurance, property sale and litigation matters as fast as possible so that the victims and survivors of the condo collapse can be compensated sooner rather than later.
Hanzman said he eventually wants a developer to buy the Collins Avenue property for a new high-rise project so the sale can generate as much money as possible. He also said he wants to see a memorial honoring the deceased built on the property, as many victims and survivors have requested.
However, Hanzman said money to pay for the memorial site must come from a public entity, such as local, state and federal governments — not from the sale of the condo property, which will directly benefit the victims and survivors. To that end, Miami-Dade lobbyist Rodney Barreto and lawyer Manny Kadre have been talking with Florida politicians to try to raise government funds.
“I have made it very clear, and will make it clear once again, that the people who lost their condominiums and their lives won’t bear the cost of the memorial,” Hanzman said.