Two nearby beach communities and Monroe County have short-term vacation rental regulations that could be considered as basis for new Sarasota County laws, staff says in report to commission

Registration systems and detailed permitting guidelines facets of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Monroe County regulations

The County Commission sits in session on Jan. 26, with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis (front left) and County Attorney Rick Elbrecht facing them. File image

Sarasota County’s Planning and Development Services staff has offered various suggestions to the County Commission in response to the board’s latest request for ideas about how best to deal with illegal, short-term vacation rentals.

Among the information in the March 23 report, staff provided details about how three other communities are handling the same types of problems that have become more common in Sarasota County’s jurisdiction, especially on Siesta Key.

The primary concern, Planning and Development staff stressed, is that the commissioners must be careful about any action they take, so as not to endanger the regulations their predecessors enacted about a decade ago.

An October 2018 report to the board members regarding vacation rental regulations in the County Code — which was included in the March 23 document — pointed out, “[T]he County is constrained in making amendments to the existing regulations,” as those have been “grandfathered in” by subsequent actions in the Florida Legislature. Generally, bills that have been filed for consideration apply to local laws that were adopted after June 1, 2011.

That October 2018 report added that the “specific scope of the [state] preemption is limited to: (1) prohibiting rental or vacation rentals; and (2) regulating the duration or frequency of rental or vacation rentals. Thus, the County can enact or amend ordinances governing vacation rentals, so long as they do not deal with these two subjects.”

Among the information in the March 23 document, It notes, “Several bills are pending within this year’s legislative session that would further preempt local government authority to regulate short-tem rentals, including bills which would reserve to the state the issue of licensing and regulation of advertising platforms such as VRBO and [Airbnb].”

Then the report discussed how the City of Holmes Beach, the City of Anna Maria and Monroe County, where the Florida Keys are located, handle short-term rentals.

In Holmes Beach, the document says, any person who operates a vacation rental must apply for a vacation rental certificate. “The application requires the property owner to certify compliance with the following: (1) FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] regulations concerning use of ground-level space; (2) the validity of an active license from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation; (3) the validity of an active resale certificate for sales tax; (4) collection and submission of the required tourist development tax; and (5) that the vacation rental property complies with all city ordinances.”

Section 5.2.3.a.1 of the Sarasota County Code does call for the following: “The owner or managing agent of real property that is offered for rent or lease shall maintain records, including the names and addresses of the lessees, that are adequate to establish the period for which a unit is rented and the names of family members or unrelated individuals occupying the premises during each rental period. Such records shall be provided upon request to inspectors authorized by Sarasota County to enforce these regulations.”

This is one of the rotating banners on the homepage of the City of Anna Maria. Image from the city website

Next, the report continues, the City of Anna Maria has a regulation that requires vacation rental registration. “The application requires submittal of current and active licenses from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, evidence of compliance with tourist development tax requirements, an exterior sketch, and an interior sketch of the vacation rental facility. Every property owner must be available to handle complaints. There are also maximum occupancy requirements,” the report notes.

As for Monroe County: A property owner must obtain an annual, “special vacation rental permit for each dwelling unit prior to renting any dwelling unit. The property owner is required to have a designated contact for responding to complaints by neighbors and must maintain a guest register, leases, and official complaint response records.” The Monroe County Code also has “special provisions governing the number of motorized watercraft allowed, a prohibition against on-street parking, noise restrictions, and regulations governing trash and debris.”

As Sarasota County commissioners have pointed out, Siesta residents typically complain about multitudes of vehicles parked at homes rented for vacation purposes, as well as late-night noise and trash piled at the curbside by visitors who leave days before the weekly Waste Management pickup.

On Feb. 24, the commissioners discussed the complaints they have been hearing about short-tem illegal rentals and considered the potential of legislative action this year that could diminish their options for dealing with problems.

Chair Alan Maio suggested the potential of hiring more county Code Enforcement staff, noting that many situations do arise at night and on weekends. He also talked of the potential of “some sort of ticketing mechanism.”

Even though the commissioners conducted two regular meetings the first week of April, none of them brought up the March 23 report. However, the potential exists that discussions could ensue during their upcoming budget workshops — especially if any of them does wish to pursue the option of hiring more Code Enforcement personnel.

Their next budget workshop is set for May 21. Then, three days have been set aside in late June for them to delve into planning for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1

Tracking the rentals

An advertisement on the website in July 2017 shows an aerial view of the houses located at 547 and 551 Beach Road on Siesta Key. For years, neighbors have complained about the number of people staying in each house at one time, along with associated parking and noise issues. Image from the Vrbo website

The March 23 report further notes that “several software packages … provide opportunities to monitor/track short-term rental activities.” Based on staff’s preliminary analysis of such software, the report adds, the packages “appear to track real-time information from rental on-line platforms,” such as Vrbo and Airbnb. “The software also can determine whether [the property owners] have proper permits or registrations that may be required by a jurisdiction and monitor listing calendars for reservations.”

Nonetheless, the report continues, “While these types of software may provide additional information for the County, additional research would be need to be conducted to determine what resources would be needed to implement and administer such a system, as well as whether any County regulations would need to be adjusted that correlate with the tracking [for example, the creation of a registry]. Even with the use of this type of software,” the report cautions that staff still would have to contend with challenges related to enforcing the regulations “and proving actual transactions for illegal short-term rental activity …”

The report adds that the county does have software already in place “that tracks existing violations at properties.”

The October 2018 report explained that county Code Enforcement staff “has experienced great difficulty in securing the following information as part of an investigation into potential illegal rentals:

  • “Receipts and checks that show money has [been] exchanged for the rental service.
  • “[A]ccurate books and records.
  • “[W]itnesses who have rented and are willing to testify in court.
  • “[L]ease agreements.”

A reminder about financial penalties

This is a photo of the house at 604 Avenida de Mayo on Siesta Key, featured on Airbnb. In 2018, Its owner asked the County Commission to be more lenient about short-term rentals, so he could increase his income from the property. Image from Airbnb

Another section of the March 23 report points out that, on Feb. 26, 2019, the commissioners approved an amendment to the portion of the County Code that “provides the format for regulating code enforcement administrative penalties.”

Following a typical proceeding before a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate, the report says, a fine cannot exceed $250 for a first violation or $500 for a repeat violation. “However, as part of the amendment approved by the [commission] in 2019,” the report notes, “the County can now impose a fine not to exceed $5,000 per violation if the violation’s harm was irreparable or irreversible in nature.” That level of fine “would be suitable,” the report points out, for illegal short-term rental situations, as well.

The report added that staff would welcome any policy guidance from the County Commission. “In the meantime,” it says, “staff will continue to investigate short-term rental enforcement cases consistent with the existing County Code and processes … [as well as] pending legislation regarding state preemption.”