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Vacation rental law repeal moves forward

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 16, 2014)

A proposed repeal of a 2011 state law that keeps cities like Vero from further regulating vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods has made it through one of two Florida Senate committees.

Senate Bill 356, filed by Sen. John Thrasher of Flagler County, was approved by an 8-0 vote last Thursday by the Business and Professional Regulation Committee, which Thrasher chairs. Before getting to the Senate floor, the bill also must pass muster with the Community Affairs Committee.

Thrasher’s seaside community near St. Augustine has experienced similar issues to Vero Beach in being able to exert little control over homeowners renting out their residences by the day or by the week, so he and colleague House Rep. Travis Hutson filed identical bills repealing the 2011 law reserving the regulation of vacation rentals as a state power.

On Oct. 22, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, prompted by Flagler County officials, issued an informal opinion on local governments’ powers to regulate vacation rentals with the 2011 law in place.

According to the opinion, “due to an increase in the number of homes being used as vacation rentals in Flagler County, many permanent residents in neighborhoods with vacation rentals have raised concerns about the negative effects such rentals have on their quality of life and character of their neighborhood.”

According to a Florida Senate staff report, Flagler County on June 1, 2011 had only zoning regulations, but not a prohibition on vacation rentals, so the opinion concluded “that such zoning ordinances could not now be interpreted to restrict vacation rentals.”

Vero Beach now faces a court battle over the issue as the city has formally appealed a ruling of its own Code Enforcement Board, which held in August that the city’s ordinance was unenforceable against former vice mayor Tracy Carroll and her husband John. The Carrolls had been fined $50 for renting out their Central Beach home for periods of less than 30 days.

Vacation rentals became a hot issue in the November city council election, with then-candidate Amelia Graves campaigning on a promise to “stop vacation rentals” and the Indian River Neighborhood Association PAC backing candidates who opposed vacation rentals.

Carroll was ousted in part due to the controversy, but the newly elected council – sans Carroll – has no more legal authority to solve the problem than the old council did prior to Nov. 5.

Public records indicate that more than 37,000 vacation rentals are licensed by the state throughout Florida and more than 200 in Vero can be found advertising on the internet on sites like Craigslist and Vacation Rentals By Owner.

City staff has stated that the Carrolls’ case was one of very few complaints lodged with the city regarding vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods.

City Attorney Wayne Coment represents the Code Enforcement Board and the South Florida law firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Pastoriza Cole & Boniske represents the Vero city council in the pending litigation.

It is the council’s position that the board overstepped its charge under the city charter by questioning Planning Director Tim McGarry’s interpretation of the city code to cover vacation rentals. Though the parties have exchanged motions in the case and the city has filed a brief, a hearing has yet to be scheduled and resolution may not come until after the close of the 2014 legislative session.

The 2011 law passed the Senate 38-0 (two senators, including Sen. Mike Haridopolos who represented part of Indian River County at the time, did not vote) with Vero’s Sen. Joe Negron voting for it. Rep. Debbie Mayfield also voted in favor of the 2011 bill in the House. When questioned about her vote last fall, Mayfield said her aim was to protect property rights and encourage tourism in a down economy.

Lobbyists for a vacation rental managers’ trade organization pushed hard for the 2011 law, plus big-name vacation rental interests such as Disney Vacation Rentals also gave copious campaign contributions to key members across the state. The Florida League of Cities opposed the 2011 law and continues to take a stand supporting local communities’ ability to regulate vacation rentals as each city, town or county sees fit.

After the vacation rental issue got much press and Vero’s elected leaders in the legislature came under pressure to support home rule, both Mayfield and Sen. Thad Altman signed on to co-sponsor the bills in their respective legislative bodies.

In the Florida House, Hutson’s companion bill, House Bill 307, has yet to come up for a vote in any of the three committees to which the bill has been referred.

Mayfield chairs the Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee, through which the bill must pass. The two other committees are the Local and Federal Affairs Committee and the Regulatory Affairs Committee.

Some legislative committee meetings are scheduled for this week, but HB 307 does not appear on any posted committee agendas. The regular session begins March 4 and ends May 2. If approved, the legislation repealing the 2011 law would take effect July 1.