County Permitting By Affidavit Under Fire From Architectural Institute
By Victor Cruz
Despite a series of changes to a plan for privatize the construction-permitting process in Miami-Dade County, the American Institute of Architects remains unsatisfied with the proposal.
The changes would allow privately retained architects and engineers to check buildings and issue permits. At issue is the transfer of liability from county building inspectors who cannot be sued for a bad inspection and privately hired architects and engineers who can, said county Building Department Director Charles Danger.
Architects are not happy with the county’s requirement that the same professional who reviews the design plan be the one called to sign off on whether the building in question meets all code requirements, said Rafael Sixto, institute president.
The county’s new process, called "permitting by affidavit" – an option that must become available according to a state building code that becomes effective in January – is subject to commission approval July 10.
It is the builder or contractor who should sign off on the final inspection and bear the subsequent liability, Mr. Sixto said.
"Unless the architect or engineer is on-site 100% of the time," he said, "there is no way he can certify that the building has been erected according to all codes."
The county’s handling of the matter, he said, "is going to put the homeowner in a position where the owner can control the plan-review process and the inspections."
Mr. Sixto said architects and engineers who rely on clients for business could be unfairly pressured to approve or hurry inspections.
But the process, now in a second version, has support from key members of the South Florida building community.
"We strongly support the ordinance," said Builders Association of South Florida President Bernie Offenberg. "The architects are the ones who are supposed to design the product to meet code. What they are saying is that they don’t want to take on the additional responsibility."
Association President-elect Lester Goldstein, a lawyer with Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod, said language in the new plan reduces the liability for architects who inspect.
"Nothing in this section," he said, "shall be construed to make the registered person the guaranteer of the construction or in any way responsible for the means and methods of the construction."
County documents show the new plan also calls for insurance requirements for registered professionals of $250,000, with a deductible not to exceed $25,000.
Mr. Offenberg, vice president of Brookman Fels Inc., said it’s the smaller architects who could be hurt by the added burden of insurance.
"But remember, this is totally optional," Mr. Offenberg said.
The use of affidavits to gain building permits can cut design time and approvals "that normally take five, six, seven, months," he said.
Mr. Danger said it now takes up to 81 days for commercial projects and 54 for residential projects from the time an application is made to the time a permit is issued. That, he said, does not count down time, when plans sit around waiting to be looked at.
The process involves personnel in seven county departments, he said. Opting for an affidavit can save about two weeks.
Assistant county attorney Hugo Benitez, who drafted the ordinance outlining the program, said if it’s approved July 10 affidavit-permitting would be available for commercial building for a 180-day trial test before it’s available for residential construction.
When it starts, said senior assistant county manager Alicia Cuervo-Schreiber, officials expect to review a minimum of 20% of all plans in the process and 50% of inspections.