Illegal short-term rentals remain of big concern to Siesta Key homeowners

Realtor warns the public to be cautious about buying property for investment purposes without checking on zoning restrictions

Realtor Curt Ware makes a point during the Jan. 9 SKA meeting. Rachel Hackney photo

Illegal short-term home rentals remain a concern to Siesta Key residents, as evidenced by comments and questions directed to a Realtor during the Jan. 9 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

County staff is continuing to do its best to address the complaints, SKA directors reported.

And the Realtor himself — Curt Ware of the Keller Williams firm in Sarasota — warned that agents selling property do not always know — or relate — accurate information about restrictions on parcels. People looking to invest in a home or condominium that they can live in while on vacation, and then use to earn income through rentals, need to be cautious, he added.

As Ware was providing a general update about transactions on the barrier island, SKA member Michael Holderness, a property owner and manager on the island, took the opportunity to ask, “What would be your guess about … illegal RSF [residential single-family] rentals [on the island]?”

“Holy cow,” was Ware’s initial response. “It’s incredible out here. … Probably over 250 or 350 illegal rentals between homes and condos on the Key,” Ware added.

When an SKA member asked for confirmation that single-family homes legally can be rented no more frequently than every 30 days, Ware replied that that is true, unless the owner is a member of a homeowners association that has different rules.

SKA Director Jean Cannon also pointed out that some areas with single-family homes on the island have different regulations. For example, she said, part of Canal Road is zoned to allow weekly rentals.

“That’s correct,” Ware said.

Then SKA Director Joyce Kouba explained that the island has its own zoning regulations, which are laid out in the Siesta Key Overlay District — or SKOD — in Sarasota County’s Unified Development Code.

Areas around Siesta Village and the South Village are dominated by residential multi-family (RMF) zoning, Ware also noted. Those properties can be rented in some cases on a daily basis or a three-day basis, he told the audience.

“It’s an issue out here on the Key for sure,” Ware summed up the illegal rentals situation.

Holderness then pointed out that he has been working to encourage county staff to approve a permitting process for home or condo rentals, adding that he might need the SKA’s help with that initiative. His goal, he continued, is for people who rent properties to abide by county ordinances.

“It’s for the betterment of the Key to establish and uphold the laws the county has put in place,” Ware agreed.

SKA Director Joe Volpe — who was not present that evening — has done extensive work on behalf of the nonprofit in trying to help county Code Enforcement staff pursue cases against homeowners who violate the county’s regulations, Director Robert Luckner noted.

Code Enforcement staff members have had trouble collecting the necessary data to prove their allegations of property owners violating the county regulations, Luckner continued. However, he added that he believed the Key’s primary Code Enforcement officer, Susan Stahley, has “some test cases … now.”

When The Sarasota News Leader asked county staff about that, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester responded on behalf of Code Enforcement in a Jan. 13 email: “[T]hey are not working on test cases. They are citing [the] transient rental code, when applicable.”

The code makes it clear that in county districts zoned for Residential Single-Family (RSF) homes, “All leases must be AT LEAST 30 days [emphasis in a flyer Winchester provided the News Leader].”

This is a 2019 county flyer explaining county regulations for renting homes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Asked how many illegal short-term rentals the Code Enforcement staff is pursuing on Siesta, Winchester told the News Leader on Jan. 15 that three Notices of Violations had been issued. “All three are pending Affidavit of Violation,” he added.

County staff has explained that when a Code Enforcement officer has sufficient documentation of a violation, the officer issues a Notice of Violation to the property owner. That advises the owner to correct the situation. Then, after what the County Code says is “a reasonable period of time,” if the situation continues, the affidavit is issued. That can lead to a hearing before a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate and, potentially, a court hearing.

Worries about real estate agents

Marlene Merkle. Image from the Venice Area Board of Realtors website

During the discussion SKA President Catherine Luckner told Ware, “I’ve always wondered, is there any requirement by the state or [Florida] Statute that Realtors have to disclose to the buyer how the [zoning of a parcel] impacts the use?”

“Real good question,” Ware replied. “My answer is, I don’t know. … If so, there’d be a lot of people in trouble.”

He is quite familiar, he indicated, with examples of real estate agents not having given buyers the correct information about properties before making sales. “I’ve helped people out of nightmare scenarios.”

Marlene Merkle, an Avenida de Mayo resident, pointed out that she has lived on her street for 39 years and has worked for the Venice Area Board of Realtors for 37 years (she is the executive director). If an agent is aware of issues with a property on the market, she said, the agent is legally obligated to provide that information to a prospective buyer. “We’ve had properties on our street that were illegally rented,” she added.

“The information [a buyer receives] is only as good as the agent knows,” Ware pointed out. Conveyance of inadequate information to prospective buyers is “rampant out here on the Key,” he said, though a number of agents on Siesta “are very good.”

Ware advised the audience members, “Be careful.”

SKA initiatives

SKA Director Robert Luckner talked of steps the nonprofit’s leaders have taken to try to prevent problems. For example, he said, “If you’re renting, you cannot claim a homestead exemption. … We started reporting people to [Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst], and he was real happy. It slowed things down a little bit.”

Moreover, Merkle of Avenida de Mayo explained that a person can make an anonymous report to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office.

This is a section of the Sarasota County Code that contains Code Enforcement regulations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Robert Luckner further noted that the County Commission had approved a change in its Code Enforcement regulations to provide for the imposition of a fine up to $5,000 a day, instead of the $250-per-day minimum for violations of the rental regulations. He called the latter “a slap on the wrist.”

Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained to SKA members in January 2019 that the $5,000 fine would be considered in the most egregious cases.

Luckner also acknowledged during the Jan. 9 discussion that enforcing the county’s regulations is difficult. Often, Code Enforcement staff is not aware of a situation until a neighbor spots people leaving garbage at the curbside for collection on the wrong day, for example, or loud noise at night indicates that visitors are using a home in a single-family residential area.

“Don’t stop complaining!” Luckner urged the audience members.

SKA Director Jean Cannon added that the SKA has been working with Sarasota County Fire Department Chief Michael Regnier on stricter safety measures for RMF properties that are frequently rented. Among those are mandates for fire extinguishers and well-marked exits.