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Vacation rentals: Line in the sand in the tug-of-war between city and state?

Written by on Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Sarasota City Commission seems ready to make this a defining issue for ‘home rule’.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Jan. 3, 2024

Host: Vacation rentals took up the bulk of the first Sarasota City Commission meeting of 2024. To be sure, the commissioners are still at least one meeting away from a vote. But a planned ordinance that would expand short-term rental regulations city-wide is shaping up as a line in the sand for home rule, and that is set to collide with existing and pending state laws that are trying to pre-empt local rulemaking. Our news team followed yesterday’s meeting.

Johannes Werner: Fear and loathing of hotel houses, and the parking issues, noise and other mayhem they bring to neighborhoods, certainly mobilizes community organizers in Sarasota these days. At the Sarasota City Commission meeting yesterday, there was one lone representative of a local realtors’ group who spoke about his opposition to the expansion altogether. He argued that the city is trying to swat flies with a sledgehammer. But there were seven neighborhood activists – representing several associations – testifying in support of an ordinance expanding vacation rental regulations citywide. They also asked commissioners to enforce the city’s existing seven-day stay minimum, and encouraged them to keep occupancy limits. The latter means the commissioners would have to take out a section from the proposed ordinance.

The commissioners had inserted a section that would have eased up occupancy limits in response to a threatened lawsuit. In October, the corporate owners of three vacation rental properties on Lido Key threatened to sue the city under a three decade-old state law called the Bert-Harris Act, which pre-empts local regulations that reduce property rights and values. The owners say that the city’s occupancy restrictions diminish their property values by millions of dollars.

24 North Polk Drive is one of the three Lido Key hotel houses owned by companies threatening to sue the City of Sarasota.

Commissioner Erik Arroyo seconded the “chasing flies with a sledgehammer” notion. He suggested some of the neighborhood organizers are trying to keep out working people, in the shape of employers renting homes for work crews. And he even brought up the United Nations Human Rights charter.

Erik Arroyo: They’re using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. And I’ve heard it in Tallahassee, when we go up there and talk about preemptions, because every year there’s a new wave of preemptions that come down and they take away from home rule powers. And it might not just be this issue, it’s like dozens of them every single year, and they always cite that, they’re like ‘local government gets out of control’, it gets elevated to Tallahassee, and then something is done.

Are the means that we’re using, are they going too far into the extreme? Comments were made about renting out to crews. You’re talking about employers renting out to their employees, who probably, you know … it’s very difficult to live in the city of Sarasota, and many workers are having difficulty with rent right now. Should we not be encouraging this? People can’t afford to live here right now. The public comments said “these people stay here for weeks and months.” “These people,” talking about working class people. It reminds me of, when you go back to the original creation of single-family zoned districts, and exclusionary zoning, trying to keep certain people, ‘these people’, out of your neighborhoods.

JW: Even so, the commissioners voted unanimously to remove the clause disputed by neighborhood organizers in the draft from discussion. They also voted 4-1 to move on to a second reading and vote on the proposed ordinance in a future meeting.

This might set the city on a collision course with state laws pre-empting local vacation rental regulations. For one, City Attorney Bob Fournier said that the new ordinance may have to be re-worked once new state legislation is passed. Among others, a pending bill in Tallahassee would take licensing out of cities’ and counties’ hands. It also limits registration fees, and it sets a maximum time for registration processing. But it also grants authority to local entities to impose occupancy limits.

Arroyo proposed to wait for the state legislature to take action on another pre-emptive bill it is expected to pass in the session that will begin this Monday and ends in March. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch positioned the vacation rental ordinance as key to the wellbeing of local residents. She was also adamant she would not want the city to wait for the state legislature to take action.

Jen Ahearn-Koch: This has been a long time coming, and I think it’s really important that we do whatever we can do to protect our neighborhoods from the very things that we have been talking about, and Commissioner [Kyle] Battie’s point about how this does impact affordable housing, that is real, and it’s a problem. And I think that this is something that is going to help, to continue, for us to look after our neighborhoods and protect people’s peaceful enjoyment of their homes and their property values.

And as per the SB 280, I understand the caution there, but if we paused every time the state legislature put a bill in motion, we would never move, ever. So, for me, thank you for clarifying all of that, but I’m not going to use that as a pause or a break on any of what we’re doing here.

JW: Regarding the Bert-Harris lawsuit threat, the city attorney has taken guidance from commissioners to hold the line on occupancy limits, while making a good-faith counteroffer. Fournier said he believes that “reasonable” local regulation has a good chance to prevail in court against Bert-Harris Act cases. In 2018, Flagler County settled with vacation rental owners that had sued under Bert-Harris for millions of dollars. A circuit court judge in that case mostly sided with the county, saying its vacation rental ordinance was valid, minus one minor provision.

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In other action, the city commissioners voted to abandon a public right-of-way in favor of a developer willing to buy the Marian Anderson brownfield site, a former landfill, near Newtown. The commissioners hope that Newtown Gateway LLC, which involves a Miami developer, will bring a two-decade effort to turn the toxic site into a commercial area to a successful conclusion.

Finally, the commissioners adopted the Sarasota-Manatee MPO 2024 Transportation Project Priority List. The MPO is the entity that manages federal funds for projects in the region. Being on the priority list does not mean that a project moves towards immediate construction. Rather, it means that the likelihood of construction happening within the next five years increases considerably.

The item that was the most notable winner is the Fruitville Road complete street project, along the northern edge of downtown. That project moved up, as did the extension of the Legacy Trail to the recently reopened Bobby Jones park and golf course. Already among the top priorities are the following projects: The Little Ringling Bridge, three more North Trail roundabouts, a pedestrian-friendlier Main Street, the North Sarasota segment of the Legacy Trail, and more complete-street projects in and near downtown.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.