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Could beach house deck collapse have been prevented?

The collapsed Emerald Isle deck sits in the grass behind the sand dunes Sunday morning. The town of Emerald Isle released its final report on the incident Tuesday.
The collapsed Emerald Isle deck sits in the grass behind the sand dunes Sunday morning. The town of Emerald Isle released its final report on the incident Tuesday. jsteimer@charlotteobserver.com

The Emerald Isle deck collapse that injured 24 vacationers last weekend has state legislators and town officials disagreeing over whether state law allows routine safety inspections of beach house decks.

At issue is a 2011 state law that says towns may make periodic inspections of residential properties only when there is “reasonable cause” to believe unsafe conditions exist. Emerald Isle Town Manager Frank Rush said that law prevents the town from inspecting beach houses unless there’s a complaint.

But the retired lawmaker who helped write the measure said that’s not what the law intends.

“If you have a deck at the beach where it’s corrosive, I think they have reasonable cause,” said former state Sen. Neal Hunt. “You can’t do it every year, but I think every 10 years would be appropriate.”

Saturday’s collapse of the screened-in deck injured 24 members of a family aged 5 to 94, at least two of them critically. Investigators said rusted nails contributed to the collapse.

Information on the victims’ conditions wasn’t available this week, but the accident has turned a spotlight on beach house safety. One South Carolina lawmaker intends to reintroduce a bill to require periodic inspections of decks.

Officials in Oak Island are distributing an information sheet on deck safety to property owners.

What’s reasonable cause?

Hunt, a Republican who sponsored the North Carolina law, said it grew out of complaints from the Triangle Apartment Association that Raleigh-area municipalities were using superfluous inspections as revenue streams. He said it wasn’t meant to tie the hands of beach communities.

But Rush of Emerald Isle sees no exceptions for beach environments in the law’s stated definition of the phrase “reasonable cause.” The law does allow for inspections of buildings with damage visible from outside the property, but sand dunes make this tough in beach towns, Rush said. It also allows for inspections of buildings with more than two violations in the past 12 months, but the legislature is currently considering expanding this to more than seven violations.

It appears the general assembly is not fully considering the need to treat certain houses as businesses that need to be inspected to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.

Nags Head Town Manager Cliff Ogburn

Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews is the primary sponsor of the new bill. He said if Rush or others feel the current law is stopping them from keeping beach houses safe, they should call him or other lawmakers. The bill is solely meant to rein in cities that have abused their ability to charge for inspections, he said.

“This bill is about leaving innocent people alone,” said Brawley, who is a commercial real estate broker. “I have no interest in people being on decks that collapse.”

He also said he doesn’t believe a different law would have led to a different outcome in Emerald Isle, calling the suggestion “pure bull----.”

Even before the 2011 law, Emerald Isle never had a deck inspection program, Rush said, and he’s not sure if his town would want one. In any case, he said he’d like the legislature to make the parameters clear.

What about S.C. beaches?

South Carolina doesn’t prohibit recurring inspections of beach rental houses, but such inspections appear to be rare. Sullivan’s Island has such a program, and town administrator Andy Benke said he doesn’t know of another like his in the state.

He pointed out, though, that his town only has 52 beach houses available for weekly rentals, because of ordinances passed in the early 1990s designed to eliminate such properties. Those 52 structures have to undergo yearly life-safety inspections.

Pat Dowling, a spokesman for North Myrtle Beach, said his town doesn’t have the resources to regularly inspect beach houses, and officials in Hilton Head Island and Surfside Beach said the same thing.

S.C. Rep. James E. Smith wants to do something about this. Smith proposed a bill in 2014 to require inspections of decks every five years. It died in committee, but the Columbia-area Democrat said he will reintroduce it in January with alterations to make it more affordable for municipalities. He said the incident in Emerald Isle further motivates him to pass the legislation.

‘Salt-air environment’

Without the protection of regular inspections, renters must trust who they’re renting from and use common sense, town managers said.

Most of those interviewed by the Observer said they generally trust homeowners and rental management companies to keep things secure. They also pointed out, though, that the companies might not have the capacity for rigorous inspections – and probably aren’t looking for rusted nails.

Rental management companies “are looking at the condition of things like the grill, hot tub, pool, etc.,” Nags Head Town Manager Cliff Ogburn said. “But I doubt they have a trained eye to look at things like the deteriorating stairs and decks, except for the obvious.”

My general perception just driving around is that people that own cottages know people want to rent properties that are solid and secure. That being said, not everyone is thinking of what a nail does in an oceanfront setting.

North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling

Oak Island Town Manager Tim Holloman said his town is working on a tip sheet for homeowners and rental management companies on how to inspect their own decks, in light of what happened in Emerald Isle.

He wants to remind homeowners to check their decks regularly.

“We’re in a salt-air environment,” Holloman said. “Everything that is exposed to the weather is more likely to wear down faster than in other environments.”

He said there are multiple things renters can do to help ensure their own safety, including conducting their own inspections.

Holloman and others also mentioned that 24 people should never have been on the Emerald Isle deck at once, as it probably was designed to hold only 10.

“It’s a matter of common sense for how many people you would put on a deck,” Surf City Town Manager Larry Bergman said.

Rush of Emerald Isle said he’s not blaming the family, the rental company or the law. But he’s convening meetings with town officials and rental companies to talk about ways to keep accidents from happening.

Steimer: 704-358-5085; @SteimerSays

Tips for renter safety

▪  Conduct your own visual inspection before you use the deck at your beach house.

▪  Ask your rental company when the house was built and whether the company has done any safety inspections.

▪  Be aware of how much weight a deck can bear. And if there is a heavy object on the deck, like a hot tub, make sure the deck is reinforced to bear the extra weight.

Source: Tim Holloman, Oak Island town manager

Latest developments in the July 4 incident

On Tuesday evening, the Town of Emerald Isle released its final report on the incident.

▪  The town has no new information on the five who were hospitalized, including the two who were in critical condition as of Sunday morning.

▪  No criminal charges will be filed.

▪  The final findings echoed the initial report that said rusted nails gave way.

▪  The part of the report filed by the fire department attributes the collapse to too many people standing on the portion of the deck that collapsed.

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