City attorney to research options as commissioners await action on potential vacation rental bills in Legislature
Seven residents of St. Armands and Lido keys joined leaders of the St. Armands Residents Association this week in imploring the Sarasota City Commission to help them deal with disruptions related to what they call “hotel houses” in their neighborhoods.
Developers and investors have been purchasing single-family homes, tearing them down and constructing houses planned to hold 20 or more people, Chris Goglio, vice president of the association, told the commissioners during their regular meeting on Jan. 21. If the situation is left unchecked, he added, “It could forever change the character of the city’s barrier islands — forever— and not in a good way.”
One of the houses that Goglio said was among the “worst offenders” has seven bedrooms with en suitebathrooms, based on the online advertisement for it.
The ad for that Lido Key property points out that the house has six king-size beds, “2 Full over Full Bunk [beds with] Trundle [and] 2 Queen Sleepers” for 25 people.
Goglio showed the commissioners a graphic the association members had created, with 12 hotel houses marked on St. Armands and Lido keys. About half already are operating as vacation rentals, while the rest appear to be under construction for that purpose, he pointed out.
Based on the association’s research, Goglio continued, one group of investors appears to own about 25 rental properties. Half of the homes have been designed for high occupancy, he said. “We feel that this is a model they’ve gotten to work on Siesta Key, and now they’re going to roll it out on St. Armands and Lido.”
It is very difficult to determine who the actual owners are, Goglio stressed, as they are “buried under levels of [limited liability companies] …” They even own their own property management firms, he added. “This is not an Airbnb issue.”
St. Armands resident Lucretia Tuffile, who said she and her husband bought their first house on the key in 2008, talked about the hotel house identified in advertising as “The Big Top,” which opened at the end of her street in recent months.
(A Sarasota News Leader online search found the property listed by a company called Lido Key Vacations.)
Another hotel house is operating around the corner from her home, she continued, and a third appears ready to open soon.
“It’s 20, 30 people in these back yards having parties,” she said.
Multiple service trucks are in and out of the neighborhood on a regular basis, she pointed out, providing linen and pool cleaning services and handling the construction of the new hotel house.
“Guests [in those vacation homes] block the driveways,” Tuffile said.
“I feel sick that the neighborhood I love and am raising my daughter in is being changed because of a company trying to make money,” Tuffile told the commissioners, her voice breaking at one point.
Yet, after hearing the presentation and complaints on Jan. 21, the city commissioners debated what they could do that would not jeopardize the vacation rental ordinance the city has had in place for a number of years — especially with new bills having been introduced in the current session of the Florida Legislature that could endanger existing local government regulations.
Finally, on a motion by Commissioner Hagen Brody, the board members voted 4-1 to direct City Attorney Robert Fournier to research both the hotel house issue and the issue of residents renting out rooms in their homes — what Brody called “home sharing.” The motion called for Fournier to report on “the legal parameters and options” the city has.
Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the “No” vote, telling Brody earlier that the hotel house issue is different from home sharing. “I just want to try to avoid that confusion.”
“The hotel houses are not owner-occupied,” she pointed out.
“I 100% understand that,” Brody replied. Nonetheless, he noted that he had received a number of emails from city residents worried about a potential change in regulations that would prevent them from earning income they need from renting rooms in their homes.
In the meantime, City Manager Tom Barwin told the board members, “We can begin to tighten … up” enforcement of city garbage collection and parking laws, as problems arise from large numbers of people renting the houses at the heart of the discussion.
“I’ll let you know if we have any staff shortages that need to be addressed,” he added, referencing comments made by Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and City Attorney Fournier.
While noting that the work of the city’s Code Enforcement staff is not part of his purview, Fournier had suggested that employees’ initiatives might be the best way to handle the situations residents had described.
Freeland Eddie concurred, saying she wanted answers about “what we canactually enforce,” including whether extra Code Enforcement employees would have to be hired and at what expense. “We’re going to need all parts of the staff,” she added.
A focus on constituents’ concerns
Mayor Ahearn-Koch had asked that the hotel house discussion be placed on the Jan. 21 agenda. That night, she told her colleagues that she had been invited to a St. Armands Residents Association meeting to learn about the problems with which residents have been contending.
Then she introduced Goglio of the association, along with that organization’s president, Kevin Bales, and the past president, Hugh Fiore.
Goglio pointed out that the City Code describes “household living” as occupancy of homes by families in neighborhoods. In contrast, he continued, “group living” is prohibited in a residential district. “Yet, these hotel houses … appear to be built only for groups.”
The investors/developers associated with these properties have their own employees who rent out the houses and manage them, he explained. Referring to an illustration he showed the board, Goglio continued, “What I see is commerce, and I see a lot of business activity. … If this diagram does not represent a prohibited commercial use in a residential district … then nothing ever will.”
Every year, Goglio pointed out, the association asks St. Armands residents to respond to a survey. The most recent one, he said — completed in November 2019 — found that 88% of the 97 respondents want the city to take action on the hotel house issue.
Fiore told the commissioners that some municipalities across the country where these types of vacation rental properties have been constructed have implemented licensing programs that entail inspections and compliance with fire safety measures.
Dennis Bischoff, who lives in Lido Shores, pointed out, “The management companies are uninterested in handling these problems,” such as loud partying.
“We just want peace and quiet between a reasonable hour at night and sun-up the next morning, and you’ve taken that away,” St. Armands resident Mike Adkinson told the commissioners.