The fight over the condo collapse area: Surfside wants in. Miami-Dade still says no

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The mayor of Surfside says the town has waited long enough for Miami-Dade County’s permission to inspect the remains of the Champlain Towers South condo building that killed 98 people in a June 24 collapse that remains under investigation by county and federal authorities.

“We want to make it absolutely clear that we object to being denied access to the site in order to conduct what we believe are urgent emergency structural and foundation investigations which may prevent another imminent building collapse in our Town,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett wrote in a letter last week to Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

The dire language refers to Champlain Towers North, another 1981 condo complex that sits two buildings away from the site of its “sister” property, Champlain South. Both were constructed at the same time by the same developer, making the North complex an instant source of concern after the South collapse.

The July 23 letter captures behind-the-scenes tension between the small municipal government and Levine Cava’s administration, which released a statement Tuesday describing an effort to prevent Surfside from complicating the official investigation into what caused Champlain South to fail.

“As we have reinforced to the town of Surfside over the last few weeks, it’s vital that the investigation move forward as expeditiously as possible while maintaining the integrity of the collapse site and all evidence,” Levine Cava said in a statement.

The stand-off also highlights the delicate situation as county authorities and prosecutors say they must protect evidence while fending off Surfside’s request to conduct an analysis that could help the town’s own legal fight should it be named a defendant in a collapse suit.

The investigation is ongoing

Jimmy Morales, the county’s chief operating officer under Levine Cava, said this week Miami-Dade didn’t plan to open the site to Surfside before a court clears access for other interested parties.

With lawsuits already underway against Champlain Towers South, firms that did work on the doomed building and others, the Surfside site is likely to be the focus of competing analyses from experts on various sides of the legal battles. Morales said once federal investigators and the police are done with their work, the court-appointed receiver now in control of the Champlain Towers South condo association will decide who gets access to the site next.

“At the end of that [investigative] process, Surfside and a lot of others who may want to have access to that site ... will probably go before the receiver at that point,” Morales said.

Morales said the county and federal investigation continues at the site, which has been cleared of debris trucked off site for more detailed searches for remains and personal effects. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, is leading the inquiry into the structural causes behind the collapse.

“The investigation is still going on,” Morales said Monday. “They still have about a four-week period of studies and analysis they want to do, geological and soil.”

Burkett said Surfside cannot wait for a years-long federal investigation. He asked Levine Cava to allow consulting engineer Allyn Kilsheimer to begin a geotechnical study of the property to find out why the building collapsed and how other oceanfront buildings in Surfside could be impacted.

“If we are denied the ability to access the site, a property within our own municipality, and we cannot do the investigations that our expert has prescribed because of the county’s refusal to give us said access, then the county must assume full and complete responsibility for any loss of life and any other damages that may result,” Burkett wrote.

Miami-Dade Police, which is leading a homicide investigation related to the collapse, said in a statement Tuesday that the department “is in the process of procuring a forensic engineer” to aid in the investigative efforts.

Champlain Towers North

Burkett’s use of the North complex to justify “emergency” access to the Champlain South site follows earlier encouraging statements about the remaining building, which would be subject to a town evacuation if deemed unsafe.

Earlier in the month, Burkett said during a news conference that preliminary city inspections of the building found “concrete strength is very good.” Kilsheimer, the town’s consulting engineer, said Tuesday there are no signs the North complex is in danger of structural failure but that tests of the South site could shed light on any underground issues for the area.

In an interview Tuesday, Kilsheimer repeated his conclusion that there is no reason to believe Champlain North is in danger. “Based on everything I’ve seen, there is no imminent danger of collapse,” he said.

Kilsheimer, who arrived in Surfside the day after the collapse, said he took the Surfside job with the understanding that he would be allowed to conduct an on-site investigation into what went wrong.

While the Champlain South testing would mostly help him determine what caused the building to fall, analysis underground there would let Surfside learn more about the ground beneath other nearby structures.

“We want to understand the geotechnical issues on South to be able to be 100% sure that North is safe,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Burkett said he hasn’t heard back from Levine Cava and would like some reassurance that the county is committed to conducting a timely investigation of the collapse — even if Kilsheimer is not allowed to help.

“I think that we would just feel much better if we knew that there was immediate action being taken,” Burkett said.

He did, however, meet with Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in Surfside to discuss concerns they share about the pace of the federal investigation, he said.

“He’s very concerned,” Burkett said. “He understands that typically NIST takes years to get the answers. Regardless of whether our expert is used, we just need to get somebody in there who can quickly begin to take the steps to expose the subsurface and start to understand why this building collapsed.”

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