Commissioner Smith fails to win colleagues’ support for motion directing county staff to work toward potential implementation of short-term vacation rental registration program

County administrator to prepare future presentation with ‘high-level overview’ of such initiatives in other jurisdictions

Commissioner Mark Smith. Image courtesy Sarasota County Government

Following a May 22 presentation regarding Sarasota County’s short-term vacation rental program regulations, Commissioner Mark Smith of Siesta Key sought his colleagues’ consensus to begin a process that could end with implementation of a registration program for property owners who host guests in an effort to earn revenue.

However, other commissioners — especially Neil Rainford, who represents most of Venice — argued against that proposal.

“We’re putting an additional burden on the ones that are already [handling short-term vacation rentals] correctly,” Rainford pointed out. More than likely, he added, those who have been violating the regulations would fail to register if the county set up such a program.

Then county Code Enforcement staff still would have to work to pursue the violations committed by those who were not registered, Rainford added.

When Rainford asked Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, if that sounded like a fair assessment of the situation, Osterhoudt acknowledged that it was.

Rainford contended that an educational program for all county residents would be a better use of staff time, with the Communications Department working to inform the public, for example, that — thanks to a County Commission vote in 2019 — vacation rental hosts who do not comply with county regulations could face a daily fine as high as $5,000 for a violation.

Ultimately, the board members agreed, by consensus, to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and staff to prepare what Lewis referred to as “a high-level overview” of registration programs operating in other Florida communities and report the findings to the commissioners at a future meeting.

(The City of Sarasota has a registration program that started with its barrier islands.)

Further, Lewis said, he would provide the board members information about the agreements that the Office of the County Attorney and Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates worked on to ensure that hosts operating through Airbnb and the online platforms of HomeAway and TripAdvisor — plus all of their subsidiaries — pay the county’s 6% “bed tax.”

Lewis also indicated that he would ask staff to pursue an educational initiative, as Rainford had proposed. “That’s not a problem at all,” Lewis said.

During the commission’s regular meeting on March 5, Rainford won his colleagues’ consensus for a staff presentation on county regulations regarding short-term vacation rentals. That day, Rainford told his fellow commissioners that he had heard “many, many times” from people throughout the county, who had expressed their frustrations over illegal rentals.

Residents had told him that the county ordinance is not working “in a way that was intended,” Rainford added.

Therefore, he said on March 5, he wanted to know whether his colleagues would be in favor of directing administrative staff to place a discussion item on an upcoming agenda, so the commissioners could listen to a staff presentation about the county ordinance and determine whether it “can be shored up in a meaningful way.”

“One hundred percent,” Commissioner Neunder replied immediately.

County regulations and the Legislature

At the outset of his May 22 presentation, Osterhoudt of Planning and Development noted that staff had provided a variety of information in the agenda packet, reflecting past commission actions on the short-term vacation rentals.

Further, Osterhoudt showed them a document that is available on the county website, which explains the county’s short-term rental regulations.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

In residential single-family zoning districts, Osterhoudt pointed out, no property can be rented more often than every 30 days.

On the barrier islands, he continued, on parcels zoned for residential multi-family housing — where condominiums stand, for example — shorter periods are permitted. However, in the rest of the county’s residential multi-family zoning districts, the 30-day rule applies, he added.

The Florida Legislature has given itself the authority to regulate short-term rentals, Osterhoudt continued, “pre-empting” local government regulations that were not in effect prior to June 1, 2011. Since Sarasota County’s regulations had been adopted before that date, he said, the county’s policies have been “grandfathered in.”

It is typical, Osterhoudt noted, for the Legislature to work on at least one new vacation rental bill each year. This year, the House and Senate also approved changes, he added. Rob Lewis, the county’s director of governmental relations, told him that the bill was headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis for a decision on whether to approve it.

(In response to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry after the May 22 board discussion, Rob Lewis wrote in an email, “I don’t believe [that bill] has yet been sent to the Governor for his approval. Once it is sent, the Governor will have 15 days to act.”)
Even if the governor signs the bill, Osterhoudt told the commissioners, Lewis had let him know that it would not affect the county’s regulations.

This is one section of the latest vacation rentals bill approved by the Florida Legislature. It cannot go into effect unless Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Code Enforcement issues and registration program features

“The biggest challenge” for county staff in enforcing the short-term vacation rental regulations is making the case that a property owner has violated them, Osterhoudt explained.

The county’s Code Enforcement staff handles complaints.

He showed the board members a slide listing the types of evidence that staff typically gathers. Among them are the following:

  • A copy of a renter’s lease showing that the term is less than 30 days.
  • Admittance of guilt by the property owner.
  • Advertisements of the property that show terms shorter than 30 days.
  • Testimony of neighbors about frequent visitors at a home.
  • Photographs of vehicles on the property that make it clear different people have been staying in the residence for periods less than 30 days.
  • Records of complaints filed with law enforcement personnel, such as those involving noise violations late at night.

Osterhoudt did note that county staff can request that renters show staff copies of their agreements. Staff also can obtain receipts given to renters, he said.

On Feb. 26, 2019, Osterhoudt continued, the County Commission approved a change in the short-term vacation rental policy to allow the imposition of a fine up to $5,000 a day. On Jan. 10 of that year, during remarks to members of the Siesta Key Association, Osterhoudt explained that the new fine could be applied, for example, in situations when loud noise late at night at illegally rented homes proves disruptive to neighbors. The Code Enforcement amendment, he explained at that time, was proposed on the basis of language in the Florida Statutes.

This slide, shown to the commissioners on May 22, provides information about penalties for violations of the county’s short-term vacation rentals ordinance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then, during his May 15 remarks, Osterhoudt pointed out that other jurisdictions have adopted registration or certificate programs. Such initiatives usually require a property owner to provide a point of contact in the event problems or complaints arise, and they routinely require inspections and pool safety measures, he added.

“That would be a brand new regulatory program for Sarasota County to pursue,” Osterhoudt told the commissioners.

At that point, Osterhoudt asked for policy guidance from the board members.

‘We need to protect our neighborhoods’

Commissioner Smith was the first to respond, noting, “I have the fortunate opportunity to be living on beautiful Siesta Key and have a lot of contacts there.”

Smith told his colleagues, “We need to protect our neighborhoods. As Siesta Key has become more popular,” he continued, and property values have risen, “the amount people will pay to stay a week is phenomenal. We’re talking over $5,000 a week and up.”

As a result, he said, Code Enforcement fines often “aren’t much of a deterrent, especially given the need for evidence to bring these people into compliance.”

Having talked to his Siesta constituents, Smith added, he believes the registration program would be the best option for the county.

As a registered architect, he noted, he has included his registration information on his business cards and stationery, as well as in any advertising.

All renters of vacation properties should have a registration number, Smith added. “Without it, I would strongly suggest they would be in violation.”

Smith did acknowledge that a registration program would entail extra expenses for the county. Therefore, along with the results of staff research about how such initiatives are handled in other jurisdictions, he said he would like to see cost estimates if Sarasota County were to implement a program.

Smith stressed, “Once Airbnbs take hold [in single-family neighborhoods, they are] an infestation.” Guests, he pointed out, are “not going to bed anytime soon, if at all.” Garbage often piles up, Smith continued, and noise keeps residents awake late at night.

This is a copy of a document Margaret Jean Cannon gave to the county commissioners in February 2019, as she discussed problems she had encountered with ‘hotel houses’ accommodating 20 or more guests on Siesta Key. Image courtesy of the Siesta Key Association

“We’ve got to get a handle on [the situation] for the sake of our neighborhoods,” Smith added.

That was when Commissioner Rainford first suggested that people who already abide by the county’s regulations likely would register right away, if the county had such a program, while those who violate the regulations would fail to do so.

He also noted that those who comply with county regulations “are already at a competitive disadvantage.”

Then Rainford proposed the educational campaign.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the community” in regard to the county’s regulations,” he pointed out. A communications campaign also should emphasize the evidence that Code Enforcement staff needs to pursue violators should be part of that, he said.

Smith suggested that a registration program could be put in place just for the county’s barrier islands.

As the commissioner representing the southernmost part of Siesta Key, Joe Neunder talked of having heard about problems from his constituents, as well — “real concerns [regarding] the health, safety and wellness of some of the neighborhoods.”

He added that he would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of a registration program.

Commission Chair Michael Moran. File image

However, Chair Michael Moran said he found Rainford’s proposal for an educational campaign to be “very thoughtful.” Moran emphasized the yearly efforts of the Legislature to change the state’s vacation rental laws. “We can’t ignore the state and where we have power and authority and where we don’t. … Tallahassee is a big, huge variable in this.”

Commissioner Neunder concurred with Moran’s comments about the educational campaign Rainford had suggested. That should be staff’s first step, Neunder said.

Smith then pointed out that a registration program could help the Tax Collector’s Office collect the 6% Tourist Development Tax on short-term rentals, as the staff almost certainly would learn about properties whose owners were not turning over the funds each month to that office. “This could be a big boon,” Smith said, noting, as well, the potential revenue from the registrations.

“I have no interest in this being a revenue source,” Moran told Smith.

“I would like to get the 10,000-foot view here,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said, referring to the registration program proposal. He added that he did not want to direct staff to take a “detailed deeper study” until he had more information.

Finally, after County Administrator Lewis offered his recommendation for the “high-level overview” of registration programs, Moran checked with his colleagues and told Lewis he had consensus to take that action.

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