Commissioner Alan Maio suggests fines as a potential new enforcement tool
Given growing constituent consternation over illegal short-term rentals in neighborhoods with single-family homes, Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio has won approval of his fellow board members for county staff to provide a report within two weeks on measures that could ease the concerns.
During remarks to his colleagues during their regular meeting on Oct. 9, Maio pointed out, “There seems to be a large concentration of [offenses] … on Siesta Key. … The repeat rentals in single-family [housing] districts create an environment [in which] it’s just rental after rental after rental, and our rules do not allow that.”
The county’s Zoning Code specifies that a home in a single-family district cannot be rented more than once every 30 days. Nonetheless, as Siesta Key Association (SKA) Director Joe Volpe has discussed during recent meetings of that nonprofit, many homeowners on the island have been dealing increasingly with multiple rentals each month of houses in their neighborhoods.
He and his wife, he has explained, have had to deal with noise late at night from partying vacationers; garbage piled up for days after guests leave, awaiting the weekly Waste Management pickup; and much more traffic on their residential streets.
On Oct. 9, Maio said he would like for staff “to tell us what they need. … Do they need more inspectors out on the Key? Do they need money for overtime?” Do they need funds to pay staff to undertake investigations at night and on weekends, outside normal working hours, he continued.
Additionally, “We need to look [at whether] there needs to be a rule change [regarding] repeat offenders,” he told the other commissioners.
The special magistrate hearing process that addresses Code Enforcement violations, he explained, is designed to achieve the compliance of the offending party. It is “not [set up] as a fund-raising mechanism for the county.”
Many times, Maio continued, people who have been charged with illegal short-term rentals appear before a special magistrate with counsel, already having reached a resolution of the issue that brought them to the hearing.
His goal, he said, is to keep county staff from having to go through “the same process [over and over with violators] and end up with nothing.”
“There are people I think who are just smirking at us, renting when they’re not supposed to, impacting the full-time residents,” Maio said.
He was seeking his colleagues’ support for his request to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to have staff prepare the report on measures that would help Code Enforcement, Maio added.
“It’s an enterprise fund,” he noted of that county division. The revenue from fines is expected to cover department expenses.
Chair Nancy Detert looked at the other board members as she asked, “Anybody object?”
No one did, so she asked Lewis to have staff prepare the report, as Maio had requested.
With Volpe out of town this week, The Sarasota News Leader asked Gene Kusekoski, the SKA president, whether he had heard Maio’s comments on Oct. 9.
He had not, Kusekoski said during an Oct. 11 telephone interview.
Kusekoski concurred with Maio about the enforcement situation regarding short-term rentals. “The big problem … over here now is there’s no teeth to [the county ordinance].”
Homeowners seem to just build the expense of any compliance actions into their charges for rentals, Kusekoski added, especially those who rent accommodations through Airbnb.
“If we’re serious — and I think we should be — then we’ve got to put some teeth behind the penalties,” Kusekoski said.
While he could understand a first offense resulting in a moderate fine, he continued, a second offense has “got to be something that makes people sit up” and hesitate to incur further fines.
Another local government’s approach
Volpe told the News Leader last month that he had spoken with Allen Parsons, the planning, zoning and building director for the Town of Longboat Key, about the town’s implementation of a new process for fining offenders of the town’s short-term rentals regulations. Volpe was hopeful, he said, that the Sarasota County Commission might take a similar step.
During an Oct. 11 telephone interview, Parsons explained to the News Leaderthat the Town Commission in June “adopted a new enforcement tool. … It’s kind of the equivalent of a parking ticket [process],” he added, which enables an offender to pay a fine without having to appear at a proceeding.
The first offense for violating the short-term rental regulation is $100, Parsons said. The second is $250, while the maximum is $500.
The Town Commission had been working toward such a measure before he began his employment with the town on Nov. 1, 2017, Parsons told the News Leader.
He acknowledged local leaders’ frustrations about enforcement procedures that entail long time periods, as well as means of compliance “without [offenders] ever having had any kind of punishment.”
Parsons did stress that the Town of Longboat Key did not try to change its short-term rental policy with the new ordinance. He pointed out that that would have been impossible, as only local governments that already had policies in place were allowed to keep them after the Florida Legislature in 2011 amended state law governing short-term rentals.
The Town of Longboat Key Resolution 2018-11says the commission was seeking “to establish standardized fine amounts for violations of the Town’s Code of Ordinances that are enforced through an administrative civil citation process.” The resolution adds that the commission “finds that the imposition of standardized fines … will act as a deterrent to violations of the Town’s Code …”
It also says that “the ‘Schedule of Violations and Fines’ shall be applicable only if the violation is not contested by the violator. If the citation is contested in the manner provided by the Town’s Code of Ordinances, the maximum civil penalty shall be $500 and shall be determined by the Code Enforcement Board as costs.”
The resolution was adopted on June 4.
Concerns about the growth of ‘investor renters’
As for other aspects of Commissioner’s Maio Oct. 9 remarks, SKA President Kusekoski told the News Leaderthat county Code Enforcement Officer Susan Stahley, who handles issues on the Key, “needs help. … It’s an impossible job.”
During the August SKA meeting, Volpe asked members to assist Stahley whenever possible, by letting her know not only about multiple rentals during a given month in single-family districts, but also by trying to find the houses on the Airbnb and other accommodations websites.
Volpe explained that the online rental companies do not provide addresses, so he and others fighting illegal short-term rentals in their neighborhoods have been spending time scrolling through website offerings. Their goal is to pinpoint houses where they suspect violations are taking place.
Kusekoski told the News Leader that another one of his major concerns is people who are buying properties in single-family housing districts as investments, just to rent them out. “Then they whine,” he said, when they are told about the county regulations.
“That’s the one that I really want to keep an eye on,” he pointed out of the investor/renter issue.
“Real people live here. … This is their home,” Kusekoski said. They do not want “an ‘Animal House’ across the street,” he added, referring to the 1970s movie about shenanigans in a fraternity house.