‘Hotel houses’ the focus of new Siesta Key Association effort to persuade county to crack down on illegal short-term vacation rentals

Nonprofit collecting information from members

This is a copy of a document showing vacation rentals advertised on an online platform. Margaret Jean Cannon of Siesta Key gave this to the county commissioners in February 2019 as she discussed problems she had encountered with large houses located near her that accommodate 20 or more guests on Siesta. Image courtesy of the Siesta Key Association

For the past several years, leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) have tried to address residents’ concerns about illegal short-term rentals, especially in neighborhoods with single-family homes.

Following a discussion that was part of the nonprofit’s most recent meeting — on May 6 — the SKA is asking its members to report any “hotel house” with which they are having problems.

The May 13 email blast said, “If you don’t know what a Hotel House is, lucky you. They are residential houses that are run like a hotel, generally renting for less than the minimum days required by zoning regulations and causing trash, noise, and traffic problems. If you are having problems with a Hotel House near you, please complete the brief report [at the link provided] to let us know the address and your contact information. We will respond with a request for more detailed information.”

The email blast includes this link for a member to provide information about the house, or houses.

Joyce Kouba. File photo

Already, SKA Director Joyce Kouba told The Sarasota News Leader on May 24, members had identified 11 locations. She believes, as she put it in an email, “[T]hat is just the tip of the iceberg.”

During the May 6 meeting, Kouba pointed out that “hotel houses” are so called because they are advertised as being able to sleep 12 to 20 people. They also are rented for less than the 30-day minimum the Sarasota County Code requires in regard to single-family dwellings.

SKA leaders also are hearing concerns about houses in Residential Multi-Family zoning districts that are rented for less than the seven-day minimum, Kouba said.

“They wreak havoc in neighborhoods,” she pointed out of such accommodations.

SKA members may have heard complaints aired during Sarasota City Commission meetings over the past year about hotel houses on St. Armands Key, Kouba added. This spring, leaders of the St. Armands Residents Association finally were able to gain City Commission approval for new regulations regarding such homes, Kouba noted.

The hope with this latest SKA initiative, she continued, is that it “will give us our impetus to go to the county,” with information about the seriousness of the problem on Siesta Key.

Then Kouba called on Victoria Varela, who lives in a neighborhood off Midnight Pass Road, to talk about her experience with a hotel house.

Varela, who noted that she has lived on the island “for quite a few years,” resides next to a hotel house “with weekly turnover,” she told the members who were participating in the meeting via Zoom. She pointed out that her home is in a single-family residential area.

“The parking, the noise levels are through the roof,” Varela stressed.

The owners of the house advertise it as having 14 to 15 beds, she continued, “and then they have multiple guests arrive …”

“We recently had a rodent problem because they’re not taking care of their garbage properly,” Varela added. “The problems go on and on …”

“This is our home,” she emphasized. “We are residents in Siesta. It’s not a vacation for us. … You definitely want to have peace and quiet sometimes.”

The problem with hotel houses began on Anna Maria Island, she said. The developer who has been identified as the originator of the concept there began buying up property on St. Armands and Lido keys and building hotel houses on those islands, Varela pointed out.

“That same developer,” she maintained, has “40-plus houses on Siesta Key. So far, he’s going pretty much unchecked.”

(She was referring to Shawn Thomas Kaleta. He first came to the attention of Siesta residents when he began redeveloping the house located at 95 Avenida Messina in the summer of 2016. That work — including initially unpermitted activities — generated complaints to county Building Division staff.)

The house at 95 Avenida Messina in Siesta Village was once the focal point of complaints about construction without proper county permits. File photo

(When the News Leader undertook a search of Florida Division of Corporations records in 2016, his name came up in a multitude of listings for limited liability corporations. In a new search of state records, on May 26, the News Leader found Kaleta was listed as the registered agent or officer for more than 200 such companies. Among them, through 5219 Calle Menorca LLC, he purchased the property at the same address on Siesta Key for $785,000 in October 2020. That parcel is zoned Residential-Multi-Family 1— RMF-1. For another example, through 91 Avenida Veneccia LLC, he purchased the Siesta parcel at that address on Feb. 26 for $2 million. It also is zoned RMF-1.)

During her remarks on May 6, Varela explained, “My goal here today” is to find out how many other people on the Key are experiencing problems with hotel houses.

One SKA member, Maribel Figueredo said she believes it is helpful for residents who live near hotel houses to collect evidence about the problems those dwellings generate, such as piled-up garbage drawing lots of rodents, so county leaders could review such materials. “Really powerful evidence,” she stressed, including documentation of calls to the Sheriff’s Office, and even affidavits of neighbors detailing concerns related to specific houses.

That would be a much better approach, Figueredo indicated, than just “whining.”

“Can we recruit you to help on the project?” Kouba asked Figueredo.

Yes, Figueredo responded.

Margaret Jean Cannon addresses the County Commission in 2017. File photo

Director Margaret Jean Cannon, who was among the first SKA members in recent years to discuss her problems with hotel houses, added, “I’ve got video.”

“I have video evidence,” Varela said. It shows a rat jumping on her husband’s arm, she indicated.

Moreover, Varela noted, county staff told her that it is helpful to gather copies of rental agreements involving specific houses.

Referencing the new City of Sarasota regulations for hotel houses, which the City Commission approved upon the second reading on May 4, SKA Director Kouba said she hoped the SKA could convince the County Commission to modify its short-term vacation rental ordinance to incorporate similar measures.

(Last month, the News Leader explained details of a staff report the County Commission had requested regarding potential measures to deal with illegal, short-term rentals. The commissioners have not broached the report’s findings during any public meeting since the document was delivered to them, to the News Leader’s knowledge.)

The city ordinance

Although the city commissioners took their last vote on the “hotel house” ordinance on May 4, City Attorney Robert Fournier told the News Leader via email this week that final tweaks were necessary before he could transmit it to the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk for execution by Mayor Hagen Brody.

Fournier provided the final version to the News Leader on May 27.

The ordinance does point out that the Florida Statutes prohibit municipalities “from enacting a local law, ordinance or regulation to prohibit ‘vacation rentals,’” and state law forbids the regulation of “the duration or frequency of guest stays in a vacation rental. However, this statutory prohibition does not apply to any local laws, ordinances or regulations adopted on or before June 1, 2011 …”

The city had a vacation rental ordinance in place prior to that date, the ordinance notes. That earlier series of regulations essentially states “that occupancy of houses where the tenancy is arranged for a period of one week or less is not considered to be a residential use or ‘household living’ allowed in residential zone districts, but is considered to be a form of transient lodging not permitted in residential zone districts,” the ordinance adds.

This is the graphic showing hotel houses that already were operating or appeared to be under construction on St. Armands and Lido keys in early 2020. File image

Moreover, the ordinance points out, “[V]acationing occupants of vacation rentals do not share a sense of community with adjacent and nearby neighborhood residents and because they are ‘on vacation’ tend to act more freely away from their normal daily home and work routine, which can lead to excessive, intrusive, raucous or rowdy behavior disturbing the nearby residents’ right to the quite and peaceful enjoyment of their homes …”

Among its provisions, the ordinance requires “a current valid certificate of registration” before a property may be rented for vacation purposes.”

“A separate certificate of registration is required for each vacation rental,” it adds.

Among the information the application requires is the listing of one or more names of “designated responsible parties,” whose telephone numbers must be included on the certificate of registration, along with the street address of the rental, the name of the owner of the property, the number of bedrooms in the rental unit and the maximum occupancy of the unit.

Those persons would have to be available by telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they would have to be “capable of assisting with resolution of any issues arising from the use of the vacation rental,” the ordinance says.

The certificate would have to be renewed annually, the ordinance adds.

After the initial application for a certificate has been filed, the rental is subject to a city inspection that would verify the dwelling’s compliance with the Florida Building Code and the Florida Fire Prevention Code, the ordinance points out.

Further, all vehicles associated with a vacation rental would have to be “parked within a driveway or parking area located on the premises and in compliance with all applicable City ordinances.”

Additionally, the maximum occupancy for vacation rentals in single-family residential zones would be capped at 10 persons, the ordinance says.

The St. Armands Residents Association provided the Sarasota City Commission this map showing ‘hotel houses’ on Siesta Key in January 2020. Image courtesy St. Armands Residents Association

In multi-family residential zones, the maximum occupancy would be 12.

Children under the age of 6 would not be counted for occupancy purposes.

However, the ordinance does allow for the phasing in of maximum occupancy levels for properties rented lawfully as of May 4, based on the number of bedrooms. Even so, the ordinance says, the figure will be capped at 16 through Dec. 31, 2023. After that date, the law notes, the phasing process would begin.

More first-hand experiences on Siesta

Another speaker during the May 6 SKA meeting, James Dragatsis, said he moved to the island from Chicago about six years ago. “I’ve gone as far as hiring an attorney,” he added, because of the problems with which he has had to contend.

Not only does a person illegally rent a home in his neighborhood, Dragatsis indicated, but the owner rents three other houses, as well. “He’s getting almost $8,000 a week,” Dragatsis alleged.

The person offered the single-family home near him for rent every week through the three months of the spring break period, Dragatsis added.

Moreover, Dragatsis said, he had learned that the owner had told renters to say they are relatives or friends, if any county staff member showed up at the door.

He had gone outside, Dragatsis continued, to watch and listen as county Code Enforcement Officer Susan Stahley went to the door of that house. Then, after she left, he had heard renters joking about what they had told her, he added.

“I have recordings, video.”

The house James Dragatsis referenced on May 6 is located at 513 Venice Lane. It is marked by the red balloon. Image from Google Maps
This map shows the Venice Lane house outlined in purple. Image courtesy Property Appraiser William Furst

Around Easter, Dragatsis continued, he could not let his two small children go into the backyard, “because of the swearing, the loud music,” coming from the hotel house. “It was terrible.”

Dragatsis said he had talked with the owner. “He could care less.”

County Code Enforcement staff finally had enough evidence to pursue a Special Magistrate Code Enforcement case against the owner, Dragatsis noted.

According to a document he provided to the SKA, the owner is the Saber Matrix Group Inc.; the house is located at 513 Venice Lane on Siesta. It is zoned Residential Single-Family, county Property Appraiser William Furst’s staff confirms on its website.

The Florida Division of Corporations records show that the registered agent of Saber Matrix Group is Scott Lantz of LFI Holding Group LLC, which is located at 1600 Thicket Lane in Sarasota. In its 2020 annual report, LFI Holding Group listed Wauseon, Ohio, as its mailing address.

This is the property located at 1600 Thicket Lane in Sarasota, marked by the red balloon. Image from Google Maps

Dragatsis told the SKA members that he was subpoenaed on three different occasions to testify during a hearing. Each time, he said, the owner’s attorney asked for a postponement. “This has gone on for almost a year,” Dragatsis pointed out.

The last time he was subpoenaed, he said, he learned the day before he was to appear at the hearing that the case had been settled. No one from the Office of the County Attorney ever notified him, he stressed.

Yet, the owner is still renting the house illegally in his neighborhood, Dragatsis alleged.

“It was a game, and the county’s to blame,” he said, adding that his attorney is looking into the situation.

In response to a News Leader request for information about that case, the Office of the County Attorney provided the following statement on May 26: “The Office of the County Attorney does not comment on active litigation; however, a forth coming resolution is anticipated by June 30.”

4 thoughts on “‘Hotel houses’ the focus of new Siesta Key Association effort to persuade county to crack down on illegal short-term vacation rentals”

  1. Thanks for highlighting the abuses that occur as greedy landlords take advantage of weak or nonexistent laws. These landlords are running circles around county personnel and law abiding citizens. Their rental properties bring in more than $1000 a day in rental revenue, so they have the “deep pockets“ required to play the game and keep winning. Please elected officials, stop this mayhem!

  2. Create a rental registry where the honor must provide documentation of insurance, a certificate of occupancy and pay a fee. Additionally establish a rental policy of 2 week minimum, 30 days is extreme. If code enforcement is called more than twice for the same renter ssubstantial fine is incurred to the homeowner and the renter. Upon renewal of the registry, the file can be reviewed and possibly denied renewal based on citations issued.

    Lastly, the current hotel discussions would definitely help deter renters from staying in residential housing. Something should be considered on this front.

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