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Guest Commentary

 Tilting at Windmills on Siesta Key

Thirty years ago, we found the neighborhood of our dreams on Siesta Key. It was just the type of community we liked. We could leave our garage doors open, park our work vehicles in our driveways, and if anyone’s grass got a little long in late summer, nobody minded.

For the first twenty-five plus years here, that didn’t change too much. Some of us were owners and some of us renters. Some homes, like ours, were extensively remodeled from the original beach cottage. While others tore the old places down and built new. The resulting neighborhood has become an eclectic mix of people, architecture, and culture.

In the past five years though, our neighborhood has taken a corrupt turn. It was slow at first, but incrementally and steadily, some homeowners rearranged their places into vacation spots. Some even moved and turned their entire homes into short-term rentals. And thanks to technology, they have been able to do so with ease.

Like the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent, it did not seem too bad at first, but unfortunately our story is turning out just the same. During this past spring, the crowds of strangers enjoying our neighborhood noticeably increased. Some properties had four or more out-of-state cars parked in yards and driveways, blocking sidewalks, and changing out weekly. Overflowing garbage and recycling would be set out days ahead of pick up, stinking, blowing in the wind, and attracting vermin. And believe us, vacationers generate a much different level of noise than residents, and at different hours.

Before you see us as cranky old folks yelling for kids to get off our lawns, consider the fact that our neighborhood is zoned RSF, residential single family, and that rentals here should not be less than 30 days. All these short-term rentals are blatant infractions of our zoning laws which are well known and traditionally, not easily changed. Yet in our neighborhood, the reality has changed.

We have discovered several important reasons for our dilemma. Though some of our neighbors are truly taking advantage of us, there is also a breakdown in government. First, our neighbors are doing this because it is lucrative. During tourist season, they are making roughly $100 to $500 a night, depending upon their set up. Following the laws of economics, they are maximizing their assets, but for that to be okay, they need to get the zoning laws changed.

Not to be left out, our local government leaders negotiated a deal with an online booking agent to collect our local tourist tax. That is, collect from everyone, legal and illegal. So now, all these illegal transient neighbors are supposedly paying into the till. But would it make you feel better knowing that neighborhood drug dealers were paying sales tax? Do you think our government leaders have incentive to take actions that will lower this revenue? And, by the way, they get a flat payment, no details from whence it came. Which seems like good, old fashioned protection money to us.

Not that all that additional revenue helps, because we have also learned that our local code enforcement agent is responsible for all of Siesta Key and a large part of the mainland and serves a department that, despite tremendous area growth, has not been expanded and faces budget cuts in the coming year. Thanks, County Commissioners!

Our zoning laws and the character of our neighborhood are all flexible, but only if we agree to it. The lack of zoning enforcement has allowed these illegal short-term landlords to take our neighborhood from us and our local government officials have complacently allowed it all to happen. We are asking that our County Commissioners reconsider their status quo. We don’t need a law, we need increased enforcement. Some additional funding and personnel would be a great start.

We don’t require these illegal short-term landlords to be punished, as much as they may deserve it. We just want the illegal rentals to stop. These landlords are perfectly free to pursue zoning changes through legal means or to rent their homes within the current rules. Free riding may be a great lifestyle, but as it’s said, eventually you run out of other people’s money. Or at least, what they are willing to tolerate.

Michael D. Sprout represents Good Neighbors of Sarasota Beach, an association of neighbors dedicated to protecting the traditional and legal use of real property around their neighborhood. To learn more about their effort, contact: goodneighbors@sarasotabeach.org