County commissioners direct staff to present update on county’s vacation rental ordinance in effort to control illegal short-term transactions

County administrator indicates discussion will have to wait at least until April

Commissioner Neil Rainford. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County Commissioner Neil Rainford has won the unanimous support of his colleagues for a new discussion of issues related to illegal short-term vacation rentals in the county.

Commissioner Mark Smith, who is a long-time Siesta Key resident, did note during the March 5 discussion that enforcement of the county’s ordinance is the key. “We may have to bump the budget on our [Code Enforcement] officers that we have [on Siesta Key],” Smith added in response to Commissioner Joe Neunder’s remarks indicating that illegal rentals are especially a problem on the barrier island.

 Neunder pointed out that he represents the southern half of Siesta as part of his District 4 territory. Smith represents the northern section of the island, which is in District 2.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the commissioners that he would schedule the discussion on an upcoming agenda, though he expected it would take place in April, at the earliest.

The board has only one other regular meeting this month, on March 19. As of this week, the commission calendar for the remainder of the year shows meetings on April 9, the afternoon of April 10, April 23 and April 24. However, several meetings have been canceled this year, resulting in long agendas on some of the days the commissioners have met.

During the Open to the Public portion of the commission’s March 5 meeting, in Venice, county resident Chad Waites asked how familiar the board members are with the county vacation rental ordinance. He pointed out that the regulations allow only one rental every 30 days for houses in single-family zoning districts. In condominiums and homes zoned Residential Multi-Family on the barrier islands, Waites continued, shorter terms are permitted.

(Commissioner Smith has pointed out that condominium complex homeowners associations have differing policies over how often units can be rented.)

Waites also cited data provided by Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates in regard to how much the annual Airbnb revenue has climbed since the county inked an agreement with the company in 2017. That accord requires the bed tax revenue from Airbnb hosts to be turned over to Ford-Coates’ office.

In the 2018 fiscal year, the Airbnb revenue added up to $1.1 million, Sherri Smith, chief deputy tax collector, told members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council in early February. For the 2023 fiscal year, she added, the total was $6,976,986.88.

Waites explained that, years ago, he bought a house on Siesta Key property zoned Residential Single-Family. “Borrowed, begged and stole to get that house,” he emphasized. However, he continued, “I was constantly harassed by Code Enforcement …”

He ended up selling that house, he said, which he had advertised for short-term rentals through Airbnb. Yet, Waites pointed out, he knows that the house still is being marketed through Airbnb for nightly rentals, in violation of the county ordinance.

Chad Waites addresses the commissioners on March 5. News Leader image

He ended up buying another house, he said, which he could rent out nightly; he spent $75,000 on renovations of it.

Since then, Waites continued, he has purchased more rental properties on parcels zoned Residential Multi-Family. “Now I’m not even able to make much money,” he stressed, because of the number of illegal short-term rentals.

“It’s not really fair,” he added, that he purchased property on which he could “do the right thing,” only to have other property owners violating the county regulations.

When he asked what could be done, Chair Michael Moran responded, “We don’t take questions [during the Open to the Public period].” Moran noted that county staff at the back of the Commission Chambers could assist Waites, or Waites could call the county number for assistance, which is 311.

A growing concern for constituents

During his report to his colleagues later on March 5, Commissioner Rainford said he has heard “many, many times” from people throughout the county, who have expressed their frustrations over illegal short-term rentals.

They have told him that the county ordinance is not working “in a way that was intended,” he added.

Therefore, Rainford continued, 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 ordinance and determine whether it “can be shored up in a meaningful way.”

“One hundred percent,” Commissioner Neunder replied immediately.

This portion of Section 124-305 of the county’s Unified Development Code explains ‘transient accommodations’ and the limitations on vacation rentals. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis suggested that he first circulate to the board members past reports that staff had written on the ordinance and related issues. Lewis especially cautioned the commissioners about the need to ensure that no changes to the ordinance be pursued that would jeopardize the fact that it has been “grandfathered in,” because it was in place prior to the Florida Legislature’s first effort to pre-empt local government policies regarding vacation rentals.

Lewis added that another vacation rental bill was making its way through the legislative session this year.

Rainford asked whether staff could outline the benefits of the county’s ordinance. “Over the last several years, it’s becoming a bigger issue,” he added, referring to the illegal rentals.

“Obviously,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger pointed out, “this has been an ongoing issue.”

Cutsinger noted that he has been working with the Manasota Key Association about illegal short-term rentals on that barrier island, which is part of his District 5 territory. “This is really mostly a Code Enforcement issue,” Cutsinger stressed. Members of the public need to make county commissioners and staff aware of illegal rentals, so the Code Enforcement staff can address them, Cutsinger added.

On Manasota Key, he continued, the Code Enforcement staff has “done a great job.”

Commissioner Smith noted that the “hotel houses,” as Siesta residents call them, have become a big point of contention on that barrier island. “I don’t believe we need to change the [county] ordinance,”

Smith said, but he suggested that strict enforcement of zoning standards on the Key could stop a number of the illegal rentals.

At one point during the discussion, Rainford did allude to the fact that the City of Sarasota and other municipalities have implemented vacation rental programs to try to make conditions better in neighborhoods in those communities.

Just last month, the City of Sarasota expanded its program from its barrier islands to the mainland. The City Commission also has raised the fees that owners of vacation rentals must pay, to provide the city more revenue to handle safety inspections and other facets of that program.

This Lido Key house originally was advertised as being able to sleep 25 people. Image from the Lido Key Vacations website

In the city, all vacation rental homes must be registered, and the owners must provide names of persons who can be contacted at any time of the day to deal with problems that arise at those accommodations.

During the March 5 discussion, County Administrator Lewis stressed that county Code Enforcement “has to be done pursuant to law.” A person may suspect that a property is being used for illegal rentals, Lewis explained, but proof is necessary for Code Enforcement staff to pursue action against a property owner.

Rainford suggested that if 10 vehicles are clustered in a driveway, that is a sure sign that a house is being rented illegally. “Ten people in a house designed for two certainly is a concern for me,” he said.

Yet, again, Lewis cautioned, proof is necessary. Just a high number of vehicles does not necessarily mean a house is being rented illegally. Nonetheless, Lewis concurred that houses originally built for smaller numbers of occupants are being rented to up to 25 visitors at a time.

Members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) have presented pages from online rental platforms during their meetings over the years to show that houses they can identify are being rented to groups with 20 or more people at a time.

Raising the fines for illegal rentals

The last time the County Commission modified the short-term rental policy, to the knowledge of The Sarasota News Leader, was in February 2019, when the board members voted unanimously to raise the fine as high as $5,000 for violations.

Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, had explained to Siesta Key Association members in January of that year that the fine could be applied in situations when loud noise late at night at illegally rented homes proves disruptive to neighbors. The Code Enforcement amendment, he said, was proposed on the basis of language in the Florida Statutes.

The fine previously could not exceed $250 per day for a first violation and $500 per day for a repeat violation of the county regulations handled by the Code Enforcement Division.

A Special Magistrate — a court official who presides over Code Enforcement hearings — would have to find a violation “to be irreparable or irreversible in nature” to impose a $5,000 fine, the amendment said.

During the Feb. 26, 2019 County Commission public hearing on the ordinance change, Margaret Jean Cannon, a director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), provided the board members a sheet showing internet advertisements for homes on Siesta Key that sleep from 14 to 24 people. Owners of two multi-story houses across from where she was then living, in a condominium complex on Beach Road, were advertising that the structures could sleep up to 26 persons, she added.

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 don’t even have the ability,” Cannon pointed out, to know who the owners are, so they can be contacted in the event problems with tenants arise.

Cannon also suggested the commissioners consider hiring more Code Enforcement officers and pay for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to hire more deputies to handle issues on the Key.

“I think that your handout alone is just startling,” then-Commissioner Nancy Detert told Cannon.

In a Feb. 20, 2019 letter to the commissioners, the SKA directors suggested a number of other measures for the county commissioners to consider in an effort to aid Code Enforcement staff in stopping illegal short-term rentals.

Among the proposals were the following:

  • Every rental house must be licensed, and documentation must name the owner and rental agent, if the latter handles the rentals. “The owner and/or agent will be required to sign an agreement stating that they have read and agree to abide by all applicable county rules applying to the location and zoning classification of the residence that will be rented,” the SKA letter suggests.
  • A fire inspection should be required and, if necessary, the house should be brought into compliance with county regulations before a license is issued.
  • If a structure is used solely for rental purposes, every transaction must be documented in writing submitted to the county Code Enforcement Division before a tenant can occupy the house. The document should state the number of guests/renters; the name and phone number of the primary responsible guest/renter; the dates when the party will be in the house; and the name and phone number of a local contact (owner/agent).
  • All rental rules must be printed in clearly readable type and posted inside the front door, in a conspicuous position. The following should be among the information included: a copy of the county’s Sound Control Ordinance; county parking rules for the specific zoning district; regulations relating to garbage and recycling collections; and the name of the real estate agent handling the property.

Action in other communities

The last county staff report to the commission on illegal vacation rentals, as found in a News Leader search of its records, was released almost exactly three years ago, in March 2021.

That document discussed how the City of Holmes Beach, the City of Anna Maria and Monroe County, where the Florida Keys are located, handle short-term rentals.

In Holmes Beach, the document noted, any person who operates a vacation rental must apply for a vacation rental certificate. “The application requires the property owner to certify compliance with the following: (1) FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] regulations concerning use of ground-level space; (2) the validity of an active license from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation; (3) the validity of an active resale certificate for sales tax; (4) collection and submission of the required tourist development tax; and (5) that the vacation rental property complies with all city ordinances.”

Section 5.2.3.a.1 of the Sarasota County Code does call for the following: “The owner or managing agent of real property that is offered for rent or lease shall maintain records, including the names and addresses of the lessees, that are adequate to establish the period for which a unit is rented and the names of family members or unrelated individuals occupying the premises during each rental period. Such records shall be provided upon request to inspectors authorized by Sarasota County to enforce these regulations.”

Next, the report continued, the City of Anna Maria has a regulation that requires vacation rental registration. “The application requires submittal of current and active licenses from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, evidence of compliance with tourist development tax requirements, an exterior sketch, and an interior sketch of the vacation rental facility. Every property owner must be available to handle complaints. There are also maximum occupancy requirements,” the report notes.

As for Monroe County: A property owner must obtain an annual, “special vacation rental permit for each dwelling unit prior to renting any dwelling unit. The property owner is required to have a designated contact for responding to complaints by neighbors and must maintain a guest register, leases, and official complaint response records.” The Monroe County Code also has “special provisions governing the number of motorized watercraft allowed, a prohibition against on-street parking, noise restrictions, and regulations governing trash and debris.”

The new state law

Florida’s historic and new capitols. Courtesy State of Florida

Last week, before the Florida Legislature adjourned its annual session, the Senate gave final approval to a law designed to address “party houses,” as lawmakers characterized the issue, the News Service of Florida reported.

“Party houses” are the same as the “hotel houses” that Siesta Key and city of Sarasota residents have decried over recent years.

Gov. Ron DeSantis must sign the bill for it to become law. If he does so, it will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025.

The new law — introduced in the session as Senate Bill 280 — would continue to pre-empt regulation of vacation rentals to the

state “while allowing local governments to have short-term rental registration programs that meet certain parameters,” the News Service of Florida explained.

The law would allow a local government to implement a vacation rental registration program that would impose a fine on any owner of affected property who failed to register. It also would allow a local government to “charge a reasonable fee to inspect a vacation rental after registration for compliance with the Florida Building Code and the Florida Fire Prevention Code …”

Moreover, the law limits the number of people who can be accommodated in a vacation rental property: a maximum of two persons per bedroom, plus an additional two persons in one common area; “or more than two persons per bedroom if there is at least 50 square feet per person, plus an additional two persons in one common area, whichever is greater.”

Further, the bill says that, as a condition of registration or renewal of a vacation rental, “a local law, ordinance, or regulation” may require the operator of a vacation rental to do the following:

  • Submit identifying information about the owner and the operator, if applicable, and the subject vacation rental premises.
  • Obtain all required tax registrations, receipts, or certificates issued by the Department of Revenue, a county, or a municipality.
  • Update required information as necessary to ensure it is current.
  • “Pay in full all recorded municipal or county code liens against the subject vacation rental premises.
  • “Designate and maintain at all times a responsible party who is capable of responding to complaints or emergencies related to the vacation rental, including being available by telephone at a provided contact telephone number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and receiving legal notice of violations on behalf of the vacation rental operator.”

Leave a Comment