New bill introduced to promote balcony safety in CA

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Alvin Wu/File

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After a June 2015 balcony collapse in Berkeley, state legislators have introduced a new bill that aims to prevent future collapses by requiring inspections at least once every five years.

Senate Bill 721 was authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and coauthored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. If approved, this bill would join other similar reforms that have been created since the June 2015 balcony collapse in Downtown Berkeley, which killed six people and severely injured seven others.

SB 721 requires inspections at least once every five years of any existing apartments and condominiums with balconies, stairwells, outside stairs or any other external feature more than six feet off the ground constructed to hold people walking or standing, according to Hill.

Rick Lopes, spokesperson for the California Contractors State License Board, or CSLB, said in an email that the board has not officially taken a position on the bill since it was introduced less than two weeks ago.

Lopes added that CSLB plans to collaborate with Hill and his staff on the details of the bill as well as on the implementation of SB 465, which was approved last September and aims to increase construction regulations. SB 465 requires the California Building Standards Commission to review codes and inspections for construction of new buildings with balconies, according to Hill.

Eustace de Saint Phalle, an attorney who represented the family of one of the balcony collapse victims, said he has been advocating for immediate changes in the city’s inspection program since the collapse.

De Saint Phalle said he sees the new bill as one piece of what he and his firm have been advocating for on behalf of the family. According to de Saint Phalle, there are still legislative changes that need to be addressed.

“I, on behalf of my firm and on behalf of the families I represent, continue to request that the legislature pass laws to prevent confidential settlements and require that any settlements related to poor or bad construction work be made public and filed with the contractors board, so that they can properly regulate those contractors who are doing negligent construction,” de Saint Phalle said.

Gene St. Onge, founder and principal of civil and structural engineering firm St. Onge & Associates, said he believes that the elements from the new bill in conjunction with regulations recently approved by the California Building Standards Commission would have prevented the June 2015 collapse.

The city of Berkeley adopted stricter inspection rules in 2015 soon after the June balcony collapse. Hill said SB 721 is modeled after Berkeley’s inspection rules and would apply them statewide.

“No one should have to question whether the balcony of their condo or an apartment they are visiting was properly constructed and is safe,” Hill said in an emailed statement.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected].