Downtown Sarasota is going through a building boom. For people living next to construction sites, that comes with some growing pains.
Three residents of the Essex House condominium were walking along the property Jan. 23 when an 8-foot-long piece of metal fell from the sky, landing just feet away.
The incident was not particularly unusual for the south Palm Avenue condo building. Next door, at 624 Palm Ave., construction crews are working on an 18-story, 17-unit condo development called Echelon on Palm.
Over the past couple of months, Essex House residents have been able to start a debris collection with material that has fallen off the Echelon construction site. Resident Lottie Varano shared pictures with city officials of multiple pieces of wood and metal that allegedly fell onto the Essex House property. He’s pleading for an intervention.
“Our residents feel — rightly so — as if they are ducks in a shooting gallery,” Varano said in a Jan. 24 email to the city.
This is not a new complaint for residents neighboring a construction site. It’s not even a new complaint for Essex House, which sued Echelon developer The Ronto Group and contractor BCB Construction and alleged the work was impinging onto the Essex House property.
That case was settled, but the strife between the two properties was not. Varano said any effort to reach out to the contractor was met with lip service. He’s gravely concerned about the potential impact of the construction work.
“If Essex cannot be protected immediately from such dangerous fallout, I strongly suggest Echelon be closed until a visible protective barrier is installed before a resident gets maimed or killed,” Varano wrote.
Varano also said a rebar fragment from the construction shattered a window on the property. Last summer, a similar issue arose for a property neighboring the site of the Vue Sarasota Bay development. Marcella Levin, a resident of the One Watergate condo building, said two pieces of debris from the Vue shattered windows in her building.
After the first incident, the contractor working on the Vue agreed to put up protective plastic on the side of the One Watergate building that faces the construction site. After the second, Levin reached out to the city for help.
City Commissioners Liz Alpert and Susan Chapman have passed their constituents’ concerns along to city officials. So far, the response suggested these incidents are mostly beyond the jurisdiction of city regulations.
When Levin sent a complaint to the city about the Vue, City Attorney Robert Fournier said it was an issue between two private property owners — a civil dispute, not one the city had any oversight regarding.
To obtain a building permit, a contractor must provide a staging plan for construction. The plan outlines where workers will park, when certain phases of construction will take place and how the impact on residents will be mitigated, among other items. If the developer doesn’t meet strict requirements outlined during the permitting process, the city could intervene, Fournier said.
“If there’s conditions in the permit or standards they’re supposed to adhere to, those are project specific,” Fournier said. “Failure to adhere to those could allow the city to revoke a permit, depending on how severe the violation is.”
But more general mistakes — like, say, allowing a piece of metal to fall off the construction site and onto a neighboring property — aren’t necessarily something the city is diligently watching.
“I think that’s a contractor’s responsibility — that’s what they’re supposed to know how to do professionally,” Fournier said.
The city has taken some action to address these incidents. Building Official Larry Murphy said the city halted construction above the 14th floor on the Echelon project after the most recent piece of debris fell. The contractor must install a catch system before the construction can resume, he said.
Fournier said the zoning of the Echelon and Essex properties have contributed to the problems. The 0.37-acre Echelon site is zoned downtown bayfront, which allows the developer to build an 18-story building. It also requires the developer to have minimal setbacks from the property line.
“If that had been left residential multifamily, this problem wouldn’t have come up.” — Robert Fournier
Without an agreement that allows the contractor to use portions of the private property, there’s little cushion for error during construction.
“It’s a function of the zero-setback lines under the downtown code for the downtown bayfront sites,” Fournier said. “If that had been left residential multifamily, this problem wouldn’t have come up.”
Anthony Solomon, an executive vice president with The Ronto Group, said the Echelon developer is trying to accommodate the Essex residents to the best of its ability. He, too, said the proximity of the two properties poses a challenge during construction.
“We’ve worked out our disputes with the neighbors,” Solomon said. “Obviously, when you’re building a building in such close quarters, it’s going to be difficult. We continue to take safety precautions.”
The construction of Echelon on Palm is scheduled for completion later this summer. Only one of the 17 condos remains unsold, with one two-story, $3.1 million unit still on the market.
Despite the issues surrounding the Echelon construction, Fournier said the city has heard relatively few complaints about the impact of new developments on neighboring properties. Considering the amount of building ongoing in the downtown area, he said that’s a good sign.
“We’re fortunate not to have had more incidents,” Fournier said.
This article has been updated to add information provided by city Building Official Larry Murphy.