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City of Sarasota expands vacation rental regulations

Written by on Thursday, February 8, 2024

Dashing ahead of state pre-emption, one commissioner hopes this will slow the growth of short-term rentals.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Feb. 7, 2024

Host: The Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 to expand vacation rental regulations city-wide, after having been prodded by neighborhood activists. With the move, the city dashed ahead of a law winding its way through the Florida legislature that would take much of the regulation of short-term rentals out of cities’ and counties’ hands. Our news team followed the discussion that preceded the vote.

Johannes Werner: On the surface, the concerns of neighbors seem to be about noise, garbage and parking around AirBnb and other short-term rentals. In response, the Sarasota-Manatee Realtors Association mobilized a half-dozen vacation rental hosts who spoke up during public comment. There was the musician who rents his home when he’s on the road, the snowbirds from Pennsylvania who are able to maintain their second residence by renting it most of the year, and the Hispanic single mom who rents her second home. They all pointed out how they are barely able to make a profit, as is. They talked about how they are making sure their customers behave. And they urged commissioners to vote ‘no’ on expanding vacation rental regulations city-wide.

The commissioners did it anyway. Led by Jen Ahearn-Koch and Debbie Trice, with Erik Arroyo pushing back, they voted 4-1 to pass a citywide ordinance for vacation rentals. The ordinance will apply to absentee landlords, not homeowners who rent rooms in their primary residence.

At stake was the commission’s plan to expand barrier island rules that require paying an annual registration fee, complying with minimum standards, and being subject to inspections that may cost hundreds of dollars.

Two women during public comment went beyond the usual complaints about noise, garbage and parking, and put the finger on the biggest impact of short-term rentals: They cause the disappearance of affordable, long-term rentals in Sarasota neighborhoods that were once populated by working families. The head of the Gillespie Park neighborhood association said 14 homes in her street near downtown now operate as vacation rentals. Tammy Gardner, who is also a realtor, argued the city should not just regulate vacation rentals by way of an ordinance, but to restrict them through zoning.

Tammy Gardner: Airbnb also has taken away a lot of affordable housing. When it becomes an Airbnb, it takes away the service people’s ability to rent. In our neighborhood, I own rentals, I have seven rental properties. I rent them on an annual basis. I could do Airbnb, but it takes out the ability for people to live in my Southside school district and have their children go to the school of homes that we own. So I think there needs to be a balance somewhere between the Airbnbs and the annual rentals, but I also believe that there should be zoning to enforce the rules citywide, not just on the islands, because it does affect people in the local neighborhoods.

JW: Commissioner Trice underlined these observations. She also seemed to hope the ordinance will slow down the conversion to vacation rentals, or even re-convert vacation rentals into places working families can afford.

Debbie Trice: Everybody who has a vacation rental property … It is a business they’re trying to at least break even and come out ahead, ideally. So it’s a financial analysis that they have to do as to whether or not they’re going to use this property as a vacation rental or the other option, which we used to see a whole lot more, is annual leasing to working families. And if you recognize that we have a shortage of affordable homes in Sarasota, one of the reasons is because so many of the affordable homes have been converted into Airbnbs. I saw a real estate ad six months to a year ago, it would have been a starter home, but instead the the ad says perfect for Airbnb.

So, this is what young people, and people moving to Sarasota, starting out, are confronted by: the inability to rent a home until they can afford something more. In doing an analysis of Airbnb versus annual rental: obviously, if you yourself are a snowbird and you want to occupy the house half the year and then rent it out the other half the year, yeah, sure, you’ll probably do a short term rental. And if you’re doing that, I would think that you could increase the weekly rental fee by $20 a week to cover that $500 registration fee. So, it’s not like you don’t have recourse to make up the difference. So, finally, the key is if you have a house that is 100% vacation rental, do the analysis to see, if this ordinance passes … would you be better off converting it to an annual lease for the people in Sarasota who need full-time homes? Thank you.

JW: But whether the new regulations will slow the sprawl of short-term rentals is doubtful. That’s particularly in light of a state legislature that is mainly driven by concern over property rights. A bill that would pre-empt cities from regulating vacation rentals is winding its way through committees in both chambers.

The Florida Senate just passed a measure – SB 280 – that regulates issues such as occupancy of vacation rentals. It also tells local governments to charge a “reasonable fee” to a vacation rental owner to register the property. If there’s a problem with that registration, the owner could be fined up to $500. Under that bill, a vacation rental registration can be suspended for violations of an ordinance that does not apply solely to vacation rentals — but only if there have been five or more violations on five separate days during a 60-day period. 

Such a new state law could set maximum fees, forcing the city to redo its registration and inspection cost schedule. Commissioner Arroyo suggested the city should not even vote on the ordinance, because it may provoke state legislators to respond with even more pre-emption bills. His colleague Ahearn-Koch eventually prevailed, arguing that it is constituents who wanted this, and that the city cannot wait for the state to take action.

Commissioner Battie’s legal fees

But wait, there is more… The 6.5-hour marathon session of the Sarasota City Commission was permeated by fallout from a racist Facebook post attributed to a neighborhood activist. That post turned out to be fake, but not until after City Commissioner Kyle Battie, put the post that seemed to attack him and a minority business owner on the agenda of the last city commission meeting. Battie lambasted racism, holding up a printout of the fake Facebook post. In response, the community activist and alleged author of the racist post she did not produce, sued the city.

After long deliberation about racism and civility – including a very personal account by Battie about racist behavior he has been subject to – the commissioners voted unanimously to have the city field legal costs associated with defending Battie in court. They did, however, put a cap of $15,000 on the legal bill the city will pay and encouraged to settle out of court.

Privatizing Ken Thompson Park?

Image from the park golf proposal

Finally, Ken Thompson Park on City Island. This is the place that is about to lose most of Mote Marine Aquarium and the visitors who flock to that attraction. Arguing that the park is already underused and neglected, a businessman is proposing to field the cost of remaking the park, if the city agrees to let him run several rides and a for-profit park golf operation there. Park golf is a simplified version of golf Jeff Koffman and his Ride Entertainment company developed that can be played by all ages. Koffman got immediate pushback from Ahearn-Koch and Trice. The commissioners fielded a recent survey that showed the park is well-accepted. Rather than privatization, all the park needs is simple improvements to make it fully attractive, in addition to a water taxi connection and maybe a stop of the city’s free BayRunner bus, the commissioners argued. Even so, the commission voted 3-2 to refer Koffman’s proposal to be discussed by the Parks, Recreation & Environmental Protection Advisory Board.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.


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