With Arroyo in minority again, Sarasota city commissioners approve expansion of vacation rental program to mainland

Commissioners stress need to ensure safety of visitors

(From left) Lucia Panica, director of Development Services for the City of Sarasota; Diane Kennedy, the city’s code compliance manager; and Hannah Chabica, a code compliance specialist, appear before the City Commission on Feb. 5. News Leader image

Taking their second, required vote on the proposed ordinance, the Sarasota city commissioners this week approved the expansion of the city’s vacation-rental program from the barrier islands to the mainland.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion during the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 5; Commissioner Debbie Trice seconded it.

Only Commissioner Erik Arroyo voted “No,” contending — as he has during past discussions of the proposal — that the measure violates private property rights and that it hinders residents from generating extra income they need by renting their homes to visitors through online rental platforms, such as Airbnb.

Ahearn-Koch emphasized that the expansion of the program will provide safer conditions for tourists, as a home registered for vacation rentals must undergo an initial inspection and then annual inspections.

“It’s about keeping people safe,” she stressed. “We swear an oath to safety, and, for me, that’s the biggest piece of this … that we are keeping those folks that come to our city safe.”

Her primary interest in expanding the regulations to the mainland, Mayor Liz Alpert said, is that the registration process for the owners of vacation rental properties includes the requirement that one or more persons be designated as points of contact in emergencies.

As Hannah Chabica, a city code compliance specialist, pointed out during a staff presentation that day, those individuals are responsible for responding to emergencies within one hour of being notified of problems. “This information is available to all city officials,” Chabica noted, “and will be also made available to the public. [It] gives neighbors a better chance to be able to reach out to who is responsible [in the event of an emergency].”

Moreover, Alpert stressed, a vacation rental is “a commercial enterprise. … And any business in the city has some sort of regulation and registration. It’s really no different from that.”

Commissioner Debbie Trice concurred with those points.

A machete instead of a scalpel

Of the 14 people who addressed the commissioners during the hearing this week, 10 expressed opposition to the ordinance. All but one of those, by count of The Sarasota News Leader, is engaged in the vacation rental business.

Max Brandow, vice president of advocacy and consumer programs for the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee, indicated in his remarks that he had encouraged the opponents to appear at the hearing.

Michael White, an artist who said he has lived in the city for 30 years — and who added that he has won the “Super Host” designation from Airbnb — stressed to the commissioners, “We’re just getting by, a lot of us. I use Airbnb to get by, to afford my home. … Don’t need more regulation and fees.”

Jeff Knowlen explained that while he is not yet a city resident, he and his wife have used vacation rentals in Florida for a decade, and they own such a property themselves in the city. “It is pivotal for our retirement plans in Sarasota,” he pointed out, “especially after our retirement funds were impacted by the stock market downturn. This investment is helping us recover financially … I fear these proposed regulations could be used to force many small, short-term rentals to close.”

Knowlen also told the commissioners, “I understand the need to address the hotel house issues on the coastal islands, but applying these ordinances to the mainland seems like performing major surgery to take out a splinter …”

Max Brandow. Image from the REALTOR Association of Sarasota Manatee website

Brandow, of the Realtor Association, pointed out that a program that began “with the big homes on the barrier islands” should not be expanded, as the affected homes on the mainland are not comparable to those on the islands. It seemed, he indicated, that the board members simply had decided to “regulate ‘em all. … The city has chosen to use a machete when a scalpel would have sufficed.”

Final approval of the ordinance, Brandow added, “might drive this activity underground more so than it already is.”

A proponent of the ordinance, Flo Entler, a 35-year city resident who lives in Arlington Park, noted that Feb. 5 marked her fourth appearance before the board to ask for the expansion of the program to the mainland. Alluding to Brandow’s remarks, Entler said that two Realtors are on her neighborhood association’s board. When she told them about the organization’s position, Entler added, “They were blown away, because they want it to go citywide.”

Raeanne Malone, who said she is a Realtor, noted that she had not planned to speak during the hearing. However, she continued, she wanted to tell the commissioners that she never received a survey from the Realtor Association asking her view on the ordinance, as a Realtor.

Malone added that she primarily sells single-family homes, and she lives in Southgate, which “has become really popular for Airbnb.” Between Southgate and Arlington Park, she said, the vacation rentals have been displacing families “and other people that are looking to become full-time residents.”

Yet another point Ahearn-Koch made is that “This is not something that was initiated by the commission or by the staff. This was initiated by the residents of our city whose neighborhoods are being commercialized.”

In years past, Trice said, the leasing of homes to working families was more common than using the properties for vacation rental purposes. In fact, Trice noted, “We have a shortage of affordable homes in Sarasota, [and] one of the reasons is because so many of the affordable homes have been converted to Airbnbs.”

During the public remarks, Kelly Brown, president of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association, also addressed that concern in urging the commissioners to approve the ordinance.

In her neighborhood, Brown said, 14 homes that once were long-term rentals — with residents who “worked and played in the downtown area” —  have become Airbnbs, and “there aren’t that many houses on the street.”

Ahearn-Koch also emphasized the fact that the ordinance does not apply to persons who live in the houses with the space they rent to visitors — “owner-occupied rentals,” as staff calls them.

A few modifications of the ordinance since first reading

These are part of the findings of fact in the ordinance. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

At the outset of the discussion, Chabica, the code compliance specialist, presented a series of slides to note changes made in the ordinance since the first reading was conducted on Jan. 2.

First, she said, “maximum occupancy” has been defined as the number of persons who may be occupants of a vacation rental at the same time between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., instead of between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Further, the definition of “Occupant” was revised to mean any person who is physically present within a vacation rental property between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Next, Chabica said, a sentence was added to the ordinance to provide for the city to post on its website “a summary of the obligations of the owner of a vacation rental owner regarding the registration and operation of the business” in accord with the applicable chapter of the City Code.

Another section of the ordinance, she continued makes it clear that the sound audible beyond the property lines of a vacation rental is regulated by the city’s Sound Ordinance.

Finally, the parking section has been modified, Chabica added, to clarify that all vehicles associated with the occupants of a vacation rental “shall be parked on a driveway or otherwise on the premises …”

Fees and expenses

After Chabica concluded her remarks, Commissioner Trice noted that a number of city residents had emailed the board members about the expense of owning vacation rentals. Trice asked city staff for clarification that the initial registration fee of $500 includes the first inspection of the property.

Chabica confirmed that that is correct.

Then Trice asked for confirmation that each annual reinspection costs $350.

Debbie Trice. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Yes, that’s correct,” Chabica told Trice.

What she had been suggesting to people, Trice said, is that one or two weeks’ worth of rental fees likely would cover the annual fees. “Is that your belief?” she asked Chabica.

“Based off the average amounts provided to us by the software [the city uses to keep track of the rentals],” Chabica responded, “it could be true.”
Commissioner Kyle Battie at one point also referenced the “pushback on the fees” from constituents.

Lucia Panica, director of the city’s Development Services Department, reminded him that the fees were not part of the ordinance before them that day. She pointed out that the commission majority already had approved higher fees, to enable the city to better cover the expenses of handling the vacation rental program.

Arroyo emphasized that the ordinance calls for expanding the vacation rental program to the mainland, and fees are part of the program.

“Essentially, we are talking about the fees,” Battie added.

The commissioners did agree that they could discuss modifications of the fee schedule at a later date, with the potential of creating a tiered system, based on the size of a vacation rental property.

Trice also said she believes that an individual can purchase a fire extinguisher from Home Depot or Lowe’s for $20, and the person also probably would not need to spend more than $20 on a battery-operated emergency light.

When she asked the city staff members if they had determined an estimate for implementing the other safety requirements, Chabica explained that the existence of a pool on a property is a “big factor,” as pool safety — “especially in Florida,” she noted — “is top of mind. It’s one of the main things that we’re looking for in those inspections.” Owners have to have gates installed, to comply with the minimum City Code requirements.

Commissioner Arroyo responded, “We don’t require [pool gates] for anyone else,” so why are they necessary for vacation rental properties?

Chabica reminded him that the Building Code requires that any property owner with a pool have gates installed for safety purposes.

“OK,” he said.

Smoke detectors also are not expensive, Trice indicated, pointing out that homeowners should have those installed even if they are not renting out property.

Trice further noted that a person who is considering becoming a vacation rental host needs to conduct a financial analysis to determine whether the business will generate sufficient income to make the investment worthwhile.

Yet another issue that arose is the minimum amount of time a person can rent out a home or rooms to tourists.

The seven-day/seven-night minimum formally was implemented in 2011, City Attorney Robert Fournier said.

Early on during discussion with the city staff members, Trice asked about what she characterized as a “hypothetical: Would the owner of a property be able to rent it for a weekend and then leave it vacant for the rest of the same week before renting it out again for the following weekend.

Panica of Development Services told her that that would not be allowed. “It’s supposed to be a minimum of seven days and seven nights.”