Office of the County Attorney to research potential tweaks to county zoning and land-use regulations to try to resolve growing problems related to illegal, short-term vacation rentals

Commissioners Detert and Maio cite numerous examples of residents’ complaints

Frederick ‘Rick’ Elbrecht is the Sarasota County attorney. News Leader image

The Sarasota County commissioners have asked the Office of the County Attorney to review potential tweaks to zoning and land-use regulations, as well as county Code Enforcement Division guidelines, that would make it more difficult for property owners to rent homes illegally to vacationers.

Commissioner Nancy Detert raised the issue during the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 24, and Chair Alan Maio was quick to concur with her on the need for potential new steps that could help residents deal with what Detert called the top three concerns of neighbors next to rental properties: noise, garbage and parking.

Detert noted the number of bills “floating around Tallahassee that would take away local control when it comes to short-term rentals,” referring to the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature, which began this week.

The county’s short-term rental ordinance dates to 2011, she continued. “If you harken back a decade,” she told her colleagues, “and think of what our definition of short-term rentals was,” it is easy to see how much the situation has been altered in the intervening years. “We’re probably not protected by the 2011 [ordinance],” she added, “because the world has changed.”

“Now we’re talking one day, two days, three days” for short-term rentals, she said, thanks to the use of online accommodations platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo.com.

“Our target areas of concern are Longboat, Siesta, Casey Key, Venice Beach,” Detert continued. County leaders welcome tourism, she said, but “I still would like to recognize the [county] in a couple of years …”

“I am absolutely frightened to death that some group of folks in Tallahassee is going to vote to amend [the state short-term rental laws] and say we cannot regulate anything,” Maio responded. “There will be absolute havoc on Siesta, as an example, and other places, as well.”

Detert talked of houses designed for 30 guests, who park “18 cars in the driveway … annoying the general public.”

Alluding to multi-story hotel projects proposed on Siesta Key, Detert added that property owners are “building huge houses for [short-term rentals]. We’re probably going to get complaints about people who want to build a hotel. Well, this is a hotel in the middle of your neighborhood.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Commissioner,” Maio replied.

In years past, Maio told the newer commissioners, the board members heard from “well known people in the Siesta community” who live in single-family neighborhoods where illegal short-term rentals had become common. One person, Maio added, reported having been “beaten up by the outsiders” because of that person’s opposition to adjoining property owners’ refusal to abide by the county ordinance.

Realtors should be aware of the county’s short-term rental regulations, Maio pointed out. Yet, they are not the only persons who handle such rentals. Some property owners advertise their homes themselves, Maio said.

This is a section of a Sarasota County flyer, distributed at the Jan. 10, 2019 Siesta Key Association meeting, that deals with transient accommodations and short-term home rentals. File image

“It takes a little common decency,” he added, for people to consider the effects of their actions on their neighbors. Even in areas zoned for multi-family housing, where county regulations allow rentals “pretty much as frequently as [property owners] like,” Maio stressed, the renters should make certain that garbage does not sit out on the curb for days, awaiting the weekly pickup by Waste Management employees.

Further, “You have not lived a full life,” Maio said, “until you have constituents sitting in a conference room with you — mom and dad in tears, sobbing — because of the language that’s used [by visitors] in illegal rentals, and [those parents have] little kids that want to use their own pool … and you sit there helpless.”

“I don’t know what we can do on new construction,” Maio continued. “But maybe [the applicable county regulations need] some sort of review,” as well.

“I’ve seen how you get four stories inside the 35-foot height [allowed for new construction on Siesta Key],” Maio pointed out, “but I’m not going to give that trick up, ever, for any amount of money.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File image

“I think we can be even more creative with what we may  … want to work in handling things like parking and garbage,” Detert pointed out.

“I suggest we ask [the Office of the County Attorney] to look at what we have [in the 2011 ordinance],” Detert told her colleagues. “Is it strong enough and can we do better?”

County staff has warned the commissioners that if they modify that 2011 ordinance, that would make it more likely that a bill approved in the Legislature would give all control over short-term rentals to the state, Maio pointed out.

As long as the county regulations remain intact as written a decade ago, staff has explained, the likelihood is greater that the ordinance would be “grandfathered in” by any new state laws.

“But there may be ways to tweak our zoning standards,” Maio suggested, such as those pertaining to parking. “We can certainly change our zoning codes.”

Code Enforcement options another possibility

Yet another focus should be the regulations regarding the county’s Code Enforcement Division, Maio pointed out. “[Illegal renters] play games with our staff. This is happening on weekends; this is happening at night.”

Perhaps more Code Enforcement personnel should be hired, he continued, so plenty of them would be available to deal with situations outside normal weekday working hours.

Further, Maio proposed “some sort of ticketing mechanism.”

People who receive Notices of Violation from Code Enforcement staff “play with us,” he added. “They say they’re sorry; they clean it up, [and then] they’re back at it in two or three months.”

A fine, Maio said, is “the only thing that people are going to understand.”

In years past, Maio continued, prior to the implementation of the Special Magistrate Code Enforcement hearing process, people “could be fined with really significant fines for being repeat offenders.”

(In late February 2019, the commissioners raised the maximum fine to $5,000 for people violating the short-term rental regulations in districts zoned for single-family homes. 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 would have to find a violation “to be irreparable or irreversible in nature” to impose a $5,000 fine, the amendment to the County Code pointed out.)

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the commissioners on Feb. 24 that the key concern for staff is what the board members can do without risking the loss of protections homeowners do have under the provisions of the 2011 ordinance.

In 2019, a new house at 657 Beach Road stands next to an older beach cottage. Many smaller homes near Siesta Public Beach have been replaced by multi-story houses that are advertised on online accommodations platforms. Image from Google Maps

Perhaps new overlay districts in areas popular for short-term rentals would be one approach, “without touching the ordinance,” Lewis added.

Commissioner Mike Moran then talked of watching a demonstration, with Lewis, of software that can be used to show all the properties that are advertised on the online accommodations platforms. Moran called it “absolutely fascinating” and suggested that it could be “a very intricate tool for us to laser in on who the troublemakers are.”

Detert made the formal motion for the Office of the County Attorney to undertake research into potential County Code changes, and she agreed that the staff should consider options for employment of the software that Moran had described, as a means of punishing offenders.

In the meantime, Lewis said, he would provide copies to all the commissioners of a Planning and Development Services Department staff report on short-term rentals that was completed in October 2018. That document resulted from a discussion similar to the one the board members were having that day, Lewis noted.

It was written before Commissioner Christian Ziegler — who was elected in November 2018 — and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger — who was elected in November 2020 — joined the board.

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