Short-term rental ordinance amendment wins approval

New language in the Zoning Code designed to facilitate enforcement against violations

County Code Enforcement Officer Susan Stahley addresses Siesta Key Association members on June 1. Rachel Hackney photo

With no comment from any member of the public, and no board discussion, the Sarasota County Commission this week unanimously approved an amendment to the county ordinance governing short-term rentals. The language was written in an effort to facilitate enforcement.

In a Jan. 31 memo to the County Commission, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that earlier that month, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Brian A. Iten had reversed penalty orders issued by Code Enforcement Special Magistrate Meg Wittmer regarding the recurrence of violations of the short-term rental regulations in the county Zoning Code.

The Code Enforcement staff had issued a Notice of Recurrence against Marian and Isabella Wierzchos of 7315 Captain Kidd Avenue — located on the Intracoastal Waterway east of Siesta Key — for engaging in illegal short-term rentals, DeMarsh added. Iten’s ruling focused on the Zoning Code language, “concluding it expressly ‘prohibited specified rentals but not attempts by property owners to arrange for such rentals,’” DeMarsh explained. “The penalty orders from the Special Magistrate relied, in part, on testimony [about] three separate telephone communications between Wierzchos and a code enforcement officer arranging a short term rental of the property. On all three occasions, the code enforcement officer confirmed rental dates with Wierzchos,” DeMarsh noted. However, Iten characterized those acts “as attempts to lease the property because the parties did not execute documents completing a lease agreement.”

A July 11 memo to the board pointed out that, for Code Enforcement, “The first [objective] is to educate property owners on the code requirements and obtain voluntary compliance.” If the latter could be achieved, the memo continued, staff had found the provisions of the code could “be difficult to enforce, particularly with [the following:]”

  • “Securing leases and receipts to determine whether a short term rental exists;
  • “Obtaining legitimate rental records from property owners;
  • “Proving that renters are not family or friends;
  • “Getting a previous renter to testify in court; and
  • “Proving that monies have exchanged hands.”

The memo also noted that when staff had secured advertisements for short term-rentals, that material was considered circumstantial evidence only. Additionally, the memo continued, when staff had obtained information directly from renters, that was considered hearsay. Thus, staff had been making efforts to try to rent properties “via telephone,” and documenting those initiatives as evidence for cases. “While difficult to enforce,” the memo pointed out, “these efforts [had] been generally successful until [the] recent Circuit Court case decision.”

The short-term rental section of the County Code contains this language, along with the amendment (underlined), which was approved this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Therefore, the July 11 memo said, an ordinance amendment had been proposed to assist Code Enforcement officers in enforcing provisions of the County Code “and achieving the intended outcomes …”

The amendment the County Commission approved this week says, “Any attempt made to solicit, advertise, or commit the act of leasing a rental in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of this section [Residential Use Categories] shall constitute a violation.”

Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion to approve it; Commissioner Michael Moran seconded the motion.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson has explained to The Sarasota News Leader that county ordinance changes normally go into effect within a few days of their passage. They have to be recorded first with the state, she has said.