PCB officials: Condos ‘an imminent threat’ to safety

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JOHN HENDERSON News Herald Reporter @PCNHJohn

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Fire and code officials have declared two buildings on Oleander Drive an “imminent threat to life safety” after a forced inspection, a city report states.

City officials have ordered the building owners, Genese and Buford Hatcher, to comply with numerous building code and safety laws, including removing structures and installing a sprinkler system in the four-story buildings at 13223 and 13225 Oleander Drive.

The city had been trying to get into the Hatchers’ condos — used primarily as short-term rentals and wedding venues — since May for a code and safety inspection to no avail. Genese Hatcher then filed a lawsuit against the city to try to stop the inspection, saying it was random and without merit, but the search went ahead on July 8 after a judge approved of an inspection search warrant.

The order, which was emailed to Hatcher on Thursday morning and then to The News Herald after a public record request, states that the Hatchers’ buildings are in violation of Florida Statutes, the Florida Building Code, Florida Administrative Code, NFPA Life Safety Code, the Land Development Code of Panama City Beach and the city Code of Ordinances.

“Taken together, these violations constitute an imminent threat to life safety, a material violation of the Florida Building Code and a nuisance,” the order states.

Multiple violations concern the distance to, ease of access and labeling of exit routes. Also listed are violations of fire safety standards in both buildings, the report states.

“The City Fire Inspector finds these violations to pose significant life safety hazards,” the report states, adding the building lacks smoke detectors, emergency lighting, fire extinguishers, a floor diagram, a fire safety pamphlet describing the evacuation route and an elevator inspection certificate.

Genese Hatcher said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of the report because she hadn’t seen it yet. However, she did question why her buildings were singled out for the inspection and said the city has created a precedent in this case that will adversely affect many people on the beach who rent out their multi-story condos, including families who can’t afford to change their condos.

“This letter is going to send people into a tailspin. It’s going to change peoples’ lives,” she said.

Cole Davis, an attorney for Panama City Beach, said the city will be enforcing the laws for all code violators, not just Hatcher.

“We’re not picking on her,” he said. “We’re going to be enforcing this across the city. We’ve had issues before, but we’ve never had the volume of complaints about these issues until her property.”

Panama City Beach City Manager Mario Gisbert echoed Davis’ comments, saying the city is getting more aggressive in pursuing code violation cases and will be going after other violators.

Hatcher previously has said she was being singled out because of personal disagreements with PCB officials, citing “clearly oppressive and arbitrary treatment” in her lawsuit against the city. The suit also stated she and her rental company, Little Mermaid Properties, had “no recent complaints or code violations.”

However, inspectors reported 15 violations. In addition to permitting and safety violations, the inspection report also noted each dwelling unit had been illegally altered from the original plans, including the addition of a row of 12 recessed bunk beds built into the fourth floor of the buildings, which is prohibited from use by the Land Development Code.

“Upon inspection, the city noted that corrugated sheet metal had been recently placed over the bunk recesses,” the report states. “These facts establish a reasonable belief that the corrugated metal panels were installed in anticipation of the city’s inspection.” Permitted office and study rooms have been converted into guest bedrooms, the report states.

The Hatchers were ordered “to take immediate correction action to remove all violations and impediments to the safe and secure use of each dwelling for the owner and their guests.”

Because the dwellings are used for short-term rentals, each dwelling constitutes a “public lodging establishment” under state law. As such, the report states, Hatcher has failed to obtain the state license for public lodging, a certificate of inspection and an automatic sprinkler system required under state law.

Within five days of receiving the letter, Hatcher must discontinue all use of the restricted floor space on the fourth floor “so that it is readily apparent from the interior of the building that the space is unable to be used for any purpose.”

Within 60 days of the date of the letter, an automatic sprinkler system must be installed and must be certified by a licensed engineer. Also within that time frame, each dwelling unit must be in full compliance with the means of egress as outlined by Florida Building Code, the report states. The Hatchers also must obtain a new certificate of occupancy from the city building department.

The Hatchers can appeal within 30 days. They also can apply for an extension.

“Failure to comply with the above schedule for correction action shall result in the city revoking each dwelling’s certificate of occupancy,” the report states.

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