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Miami Herald 7/11/01

Builders win right to choose project inspectors. Dade ordinance a win for Penelas
BY Karl Ross

After reassurances from the county's top building official, the Miami-Dade County Commission on Tuesday approved a controversial ordinance that will allow developers to hand-pick the people who will review their plans and inspect their projects for compliance with construction safety codes.

The commission approved Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas' proposal on an 8-3 vote following nearly four hours of seesawing deliberations and a motion to postpone for further study that came up one vote short.

The three commissioners voting against it -- Joe Martinez, Katie Sorenson and Dennis Moss -- represent South Miami-Dade, the area punished most severely by Hurricane Andrew. They say they fear the privatized review process will open the door to unsafe construction.

The approval vote was a significant victory for Penelas, who made the plan a centerpiece of his State of the County speech in January.

The ordinance is intended to speed new building permits -- long a concern for developers of large projects -- through a process known as ``permit by affidavit.''

Building industry representatives argued for the change, saying it will streamline a cumbersome process and attract developers who have been driven away from Miami-Dade by bureaucratic red-tape.


But many architects and engineers -- the professionals who will perform the work -- were opposed.

Breaking the deadlock on the commission was an unlikely advocate, Miami-Dade building department director Charles Danger, long a burr under the saddle of local developers.

``I am comfortable with it,'' Danger told commissioners.

Under the new statewide construction code, approved last year by the Florida Legislature, private inspections and plan review are left to the discretion of local building officials, and Danger says he doesn't want to be caught unprepared when developers ask for private oversight.

``Affidavits are an issue given to us by the state,'' Danger said. ``I didn't ask for it. We're stuck with it, so we have to set a procedure here. I don't want it to come down to me saying, `I don't like your face,' or `I don't like the cigar you're smoking.' ''

Danger said the ordinance contains checks and balances such as provisions calling for a review by county building officials of 20 percent of all privately certified plans. It also calls for an on-site audit of 50 percent of all private inspections.

He noted that the ordinance allows the building department to revoke permits and decertify renegade architects and engineers.

Not all commissioners were convinced. ``The whole idea of the fox guarding the henhouse really hasn't been dispelled,'' Sorenson said.

Moss, another dissenting commissioner, said his staff contacted building officials in Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and Hillsborough counties. None of those counties reported plans to adopt a similar affidavit ordinance, he said.

``It seems like we're the only ones, here in Miami-Dade County, who are in a rush to implement something,'' Moss said. ``If we do implement something, it should be a system that would eliminate inherent conflicts of interest.''


Penelas told commissioners he believed the ordinance, tweaked and tightened over the past six months, strikes a balance.

``The safeguards built into this ordinance will protect not only the builders but also the homeowner whose domicile is his refuge,'' he said.

Over the first six months of the ordinance, which goes into effect next year, only commercial and industrial projects can take advantage of the privatized plan review and inspection process. After that, other types of construction, including residential, become eligible.

Combating the plan were many of the very people authorized to supplant county building inspectors -- registered architects and engineers. Leaders of the local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the Florida Structural Engineers Association spoke out in opposition.

They urged further study, noting that a state task force is still examining the issue and won't make a presentation to the state Legislature until early next year. They voiced concerns about a ``built-in conflict of interest'' in allowing builders to hire their own inspectors.

Bernard Zyscovich, a Miami architect, likened the ordinance to allowing criminal defendants to hire their own judges: ``That's a deal killer as far as I'm concerned because it's a violation of the built-in trust inherent in the inspection process.''

He said he could support a system in which private inspectors were selected at random by the county or a disinterested party, similar to how courts select judges.


Others warned of the likelihood that some of their peers would succumb to pressure from builders to cut corners.

``You're taking this out of the hands of the county and asking for absolute honesty from a professional, which we know will not be possible,'' said David Feinberg, an architect and inspector. ``There's going to be a lot of pressure to get your paycheck at the end of the day.''

Representatives of the building industry returned the criticism, calling into question the integrity of opponents.

``I would say I'm disappointed to see that the design professionals say that they could be bought out so easily,'' said Bernie Offenberg, president of the Builders Association of South Florida.

Engineers and architects' fears that they would assume liability for flawed construction work are overblown, said William Delgado, executive vice president of the Latin Builders Association. Developers still would be the ``deep pockets,'' should litigation arise, Delgado said.

``The last time I looked around I was in the United States of America, where the government does not tell the private sector how to run its business,'' Delgado said. ``I don't care if they tell you a developer will give you a million dollars, if you are an honest individual, you won't take it.

``This county is not all corrupt.''