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County staff report on dealing with illegal short-term rentals

By Rachel Brown Hackney

Sarasota County staff is researching the legality of imposing a fine as high as $5,000 per violation in cases when people do not abide by the county’s ordinance regarding short-term rentals.

The measure is just one element of a staff report that the County Commission called for on Oct. 9 — at Commissioner Alan Maio’s request. The report notes that Monroe County — home to Key West — already has taken the approach of stiffer fines for illegal rentals.

Released to the board in November, the report explains that the existing Code Enforcement ordinance covering short-term rentals “provides that a fine shall not exceed $250.00 per day for the first violation and shall not exceed $500.00 per day for a repeat violation.” However, the report points out, Section 162.09 of the Florida Statutes states that the county “can impose a fine not to exceed $5,000 per violation” if the harm resulting from the violation was “irreparable or irreversible in nature.” The report adds, “This may be a likely scenario with illegal short-term rental activity and the associated harm that can be caused by the activity to surrounding property owners during the rental period.”

During remarks to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members over the past months, Director Joe Volpe has talked about numerous suspected illegal rentals in the neighborhood where he and his wife live on the northern part of the island. Among the problems they have witnessed, Volpe has said, have been piles of garbage waiting days for Waste Management pick-ups, drawing pests and producing noxious odors; loud partying late at night; and speeding and significantly more traffic on the residential streets, with multiple people staying in houses close to their home.

He has been working with county Code Enforcement staff on the situation.

After staff has concluded its research, the report continues, it will “bring to the [commission] for consideration a proposed mechanism (e.g. ordinance amendment, fee resolution, etc.) that will provide for increased levels of fines.”

Staff also has suggested the commission could amend the county’s zoning regulations to call for action such as a registration program for short-term rentals and requirements for landlords to provide fire extinguishers, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and emergency exits and lighting.

Potential amendments will be one topic on the Dec. 6 SKA agenda, Director Erin Kreis told about 60 members of the organization during the Nov. 8 meeting. A representative of county administration will be present next month, she said, to discuss the issue.

She was speaking for Volpe, Kreis noted, as he was out of town.

One critical issue the staff report explains is that the county’s short-term rental regulations were adopted prior to a state law, which allowed them to stay in place. That Florida Statute says, “A local law, ordinance, or regulation may not prohibit vacation rentals or regulate the duration or frequency of rental or vacation rentals. This paragraph does not apply to any local law, ordinance or regulation adopted on or before June 1, 2011.”

“However, the County is constrained in making amendments to the existing regulations,” the report points out, because the county would run the risk of having the state law pre-empt the county law.

As long as amendments do not impose a prohibition on rentals or modify the duration or frequency of rentals, the report indicates the county should have no fear of state recourse.

A bigger problem on Siesta

During remarks on Oct. 9, as part of a regular meeting, Commissioner Maio referenced the emails he and his colleagues had been receiving about short-term rentals. “There seems to be a large concentration of [offenses] … on Siesta Key,” he said.

The report affirms Maio’s observation, noting, “While there are [illegal short-term rental] cases on the mainland, there has been an increase in activity particularly on Siesta Key.”

During the past months, Volpe of the SKA has explained to the nonprofit’s members that the county Zoning Code allows a rental of an accommodation in a single-family residential district only once every 30 days. Nonetheless, given the rise in the popularity of Airbnb and other online services, such as Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO), more and more property owners in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing have been taking advantage of tourists’ interest in Siesta Key to market their homes for guests on a much more regular basis.

Possible new procedures and the costs

In regard to other amendments of the Sarasota County zoning regulations, the staff report explains that the Cities of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria Island have adopted provisions that include guidelines regarding inspections of rental properties, parking and solid waste collection.

“Should the [Sarasota County Commission] determine that an ordinance amendment is needed,” the report adds, “the Board would need to provide guidance on the scope of such an amendment. Staff would then move forward with the … process and provide the Board with analysis and proposed language for consideration.”

That part of the report does include a caveat: “Note that adding … regulatory provisions relating to short-term rentals would [necessitate consideration of] staffing resources and funding … to administer the regulations.”

The county staff report explains that the Code Enforcement Division, which enforces the short-term rental zoning regulations, “is funded by the General Fund.” That account is made up primarily of property tax revenue. Although it is the most flexible source of the County Commission’s numerous “pots” of money from which to finance initiatives, commissioners and finance staff have explained, it also is the most constrained, because of the demands upon it.

“In addition to normal working hours (Monday through Friday [from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.]), Code Enforcement staff has utilized overtime funding to conduct [after-hours] and weekend inspections to investigate illegal short-term rentals as well as other alleged violations,” the staff report continues.

In the budget the commission approved for the 2019 fiscal year — which began on Oct. 1 — $45,384 “has been allocated to overtime efforts,” the report points out.