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This year, hurricanes, with record rain, storm surges and winds, have resulted in severe damage to both commercial and residential buildings, mold contamination, and significant interruption to businesses in the impacted areas. Several Caribbean islands have been wiped away, Key West is unrecognizable, and Houston may have lost more than 150,000 homes. For most of us, luckily, the damage was less severe. My wife and I have leaks in our roof and elsewhere and lost a window (but gained an indoor tree). We lost power for about four and a half days. Friends in South Miami are still without power as of the writing of this post.

The legal implications of the hurricane aftermath extend well beyond mere rebuilding. Mold contamination and water intrusion must be addressed and properly remediated. Design and construction defects may be alleged to have exacerbated the extent of the damage from the hurricane. Employers may face workers’ compensation claims from employees and also may have vacation and lost wages concerns. Insurance coverage may be at issue. Construction costs may have escalated causing losses to builders or developers. Building permits and development approvals may expire due to delays caused by the hurricane. Condominium associations may not have sufficient reserves to act on emergency repairs. Construction licensing regulations may affect the ability to commence repairs and provide penalties for failure to engage properly certified contractors.

So what to do?

  • Make sure you and your family, employees and customers will be safe in your home or building.
    • Are there electrical system damage and risks?
    • Is the water safe to drink?
    • Is there a risk to the structural integrity of improvements?
    • Other Physical Hazards (don’t panic, but snakes and scorpions like piles of debris).
    • Contamination? Such as leaking petroleum tanks, chemical spills and the like.
  • Address potential health risks, whether mold or risky property conditions.
  • Secure your property and protect it from potential or further loss of property value.
  • Deal with Insurance.
  • Deal with Government Agencies such as FEMA
  • Deal with FP&L’s reimbursement programs.
  • Check with your mortgage lender. The lender may have the right to collect insurance proceeds and disburse the funds as repair and rebuilding proceed.
  • Only then commence to restore your property. Use only licensed and insured contractors. Where required by law, obtain all necessary permits and approvals. If you are part of a condominium or property owners’ association, make sure all Board approvals are obtained.
  • Get on with your life

Our lawyers have assisted clients in resolving insurance disputes, negotiating agreements in connection with assessment and remediation services, resolving design and construction defect claims,  implementing programs for addressing employee benefits, preparing hurricane and disaster response plans, and in finding their way through myriad environmental regulations.   In one recent example,  we resolved an insurer’s denial of coverage for water damage based on a theory that the building envelope was defectively designed or constructed and that the damage was not caused by a windstorm (as provided in the policy). By engaging the proper experts, a successful argument was made that the building envelope was properly designed and constructed and that it was indeed the hurricane-force winds that caused the water intrusion.

In another example, we assisted a client in requesting an extension of the expiration date for various development approvals that could not be met due to the direct delays of the hurricane, the difficulty in obtaining materials and the need to redesign to address increases in construction costs.

In addition to helping guide our clients in making proper recovery efforts, we are also focusing our clients’ attention on preventative measures to avoid future repeat damage and liability. We have found that many building and business owners have been hesitant to expend significant sums in prevention, in part to the belief that the recent hurricane landfalls in Florida were merely a fluke.  Whether global warming or a regular climatological cycle, it appears that the Atlantic hurricane season has been on an upswing that may continue for a decade or more. Proper preparation can lessen the business impacts and speed up recovery efforts.

 

taxes[1] (00155358)

        It’s that time of year again. Property owners, whether office, retail, apartments and residential have received or will shortly receive by mail the Truth in Millage Act (TRIM) notice for 2016 ad valorem real property tax assessment. The purpose of the TRIM notice is to advise you of what the county property appraiser has determined to be the value of your real property and advise you of the minimum and maximum tax rates that will then apply.  As the tax millage rates are determined by action of the local government agencies, such as the county, municipality and improvement districts, the only means of contesting those rates is at the voting booth. However, assessed value may be challenged.

            Some basics:

  • Ad valorem real property taxes are based on the value of your real property on January 1st of each year. So, taxes for 2016 are based on the value of the property determined as of January 1, 2016.

 

  • Tax rolls close in June of the tax year and TRIM notices are mailed in August.

 

  • Tax bills are mailed in November with taxes being delinquent after March 31st of the following year. Paying early can yield up to a 4 percent discount on the base tax amount, with the discount declining by 1 percent per month. The tax bills are essentially paid in arrears; taxes billed in November 2016 and payable through March 2016 represent 2016 real estate taxes.

 

            If you believe that you may have been over-assessed, there are several procedures to challenge the assessed value set forth in the TRIM notice.  A property owner may request an informal conference with the county property appraiser at any time during the year. An informal conference is most often successful if there is critical information that may not have been available to the property appraiser’s office prior to determining value (such as damage that may have substantially reduced business income from the property).

            The most common approach is to file with the clerk of the county Valuation Adjustment Board a petition challenging the valuation.  You have 25 days from the county’s mailing date of the TRIM notices to file a petition to administratively contest this year’s assessment. The county-specific filing deadline is noted on the TRIM notice itself.  The deadlines in South Florida for filing a petition this year are:

  • Broward County:              September 19

 

  • Miami-Dade County:       September 19

 

  • Palm Beach County:         September 15

 

With a relatively short appeal period, it is important to file the petition to avoid missing the opportunity of the administrative process. The alternative if the deadline is missed is to file a civil action; a much more expensive procedure.

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