With Memorial Day looming, Sarasota County administrative staff wins state approval of plans so legal, short-term vacation rentals can resume

Staff worked with Visit Sarasota County on guidelines

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

Halsey Beshears is secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Image from the department website

Late in the afternoon of May 18, Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis emailed Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation (DBPR), making a formal request for legal short-term rental operations to resume in the county.

The goal, Lewis wrote, is to put the proposed county plan into effect on May 22 — the start of Memorial Day weekend for many people.

During the regular County Commission meeting on May 20, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department — who also serves as the Planning Section chief for the county during the DOVID-19 public health emergency — explained that the date the rental operations may resume “will be contingent on when we get the response from the state. … We obviously won’t hold up anything on our end here.”

Lewis added that the county’s issuance of its go-ahead for owners and managers to reopen those businesses would depend on the time of day staff received notice from the state. For example, Lewis explained, if that state approval came in late in the afternoon, staff would wait until the next morning to release the announcement.

However, he continued, if the DBPR grants its approval prior to May 22, staff would stick with May 22 as the reopening date.

As the County Commission was conducting a May 21 budget workshop, Lewis announced shortly before 3 p.m. that he had just received word from DBPR that it had approved the Sarasota County plan.

In his May 18 letter to Beshears, Lewis pointed out, “Our local economy has suffered greatly, and one of those areas of impact is our legal short-term (vacation) rentals.”

Lewis sent the communication to the DBPR in accord with a section of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order 20-123, whose measures were authorized as of 12:01 a.m. on May 18. Section 4 said, “Counties may seek approval to operate vacation rentals with a written request from the County Administrator and the county’s safety plan for vacation rental operations submitted to the DBPR Secretary.”

Shortly before 1 p.m. on May 18, Lewis had emailed the county commissioners, writing, “We asked Friday for Visit Sarasota to draft a plan and over the weekend they submitted the draft.”

Visit Sarasota County (VSC) is the county’s tourism office.

“In order to get into the queue for review by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation,” Lewis continued in his May 18 email to the commissioners, “I plan on submitting a brief one page plan to them today. This will allow them to start reviewing and for us to discuss at [the May 20] board meeting.”

Adding that he would send them the draft after it had been completed, Lewis wrote, “The basic idea is that [the plan] should comply with the governor’s executive orders, DBPR rules, and [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC guidelines. We will also work with Visit Sarasota to put together another document that will provide more detailed guidance for the businesses.”

This is the plan for reopening legal, short-term vacation rentals in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In his May 18 email to Beshears, Lewis also explained that the county plan “has been shared with all municipalities. While most of them have reviewed and agreed, we have not currently heard from all of them.”

Late in the afternoon of May 19, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant noted in an email blast that the county plan was under review by the DBPR. She added, “Sarasota County is working in coordination with Visit Sarasota County to educate property owners/managers on the [proposed] guidelines and stipulations.”

The DBPR website noted that five county plans had won endorsement as of early afternoon on May 19; none of them was in Southwest Florida.

Based on a Sarasota News Leader review of the DBPR list as of early afternoon on May 20, most of the counties on the DBPR list were in the Panhandle.

These are the counties whose plans had won approval as of early afternoon on May 20. Image courtesy DBPR

As of late morning on May 21, several other counties had won state approval. Among them were Charlotte, Pinellas, Duval and St. Johns.

The background

On March 27, Gov. DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-87, which said, “[M]any cases of COVID-19 in Florida have resulted from individuals coming into the State of Florida from international travel and other states, posing great risk to Florida residents …” The order also noted that “vacation rentals and third-party platforms advertising vacation rentals in Florida present attractive lodging destinations …”

Thus, DeSantis declared the suspension of rentals of vacation properties as defined in Section 509.242(1)(c) of the Florida Statutes. The order included houses, condominiums and cooperatives, as well as dwelling units that also are classified as transient public lodging establishments.

This is the applicable section of the March 27 Executive Order. Image courtesy Office of the Florida Governor

In February, Chief Deputy Sarasota County Tax Collector Sherri Smith told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council that, in the 2019 fiscal year, condominiums made up the largest portion of accommodations that collected the county’s “bed tax” revenue — 71.9%. Houses were in second place, at 20.09%, she added.

Further, Smith noted, online platforms — such as Airbnb and HomeAway — accounted for 8.36% of the county’s Tourist Development Tax Revenue in the 2019 fiscal year.

The bed tax is charged on accommodations rented for six months or less time.

On May 14, state Rep. Margaret Good of District 72, who is a Siesta Key resident, sent Gov. DeSantis a letter in which she pointed out, “While hotels, motels, and resorts have been cleared to re-open, short-term rentals have not. These businesses recognize that safety is of the utmost concern and the vacation rental industry has worked hard to educate and implement safety precautions and inspection processes throughout the state. It makes no sense that vacation rentals are not allowed to operate while hotels and motels are actively renting out rooms. This is an arbitrary distinction that hurts local businesses.”

Good added, “Floridians who own vacation rentals are seeing millions in estimated losses since the ban went into effect in March. Cleaning companies and third party vendors who maintain these properties have also experienced major setbacks and many have not received any state or federal assistance. Meanwhile, property owners are continuing to pay mortgages and maintenance for the dwellings despite having no income.”

She did note her “serious concerns about re-opening [the state],” in light of the recommendations of health experts. However, she continued, “[S]ince the state is moving forward with re-opening, it should be done in a manner that is fair and doesn’t leave small businesses behind. In the area of lodging, this has not happened.”

Regional cooperation

During the May 20 County Commission discussion of the issue, County Administrator Lewis explained that he joined the managers of Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Charlotte counties in regional collaboration on the short-term vacation rental reopening initiative. That effort began “almost immediately,” Lewis said, after Gov. DeSantis issued the May 15 Executive Order.

“We started sharing draft documents,” Lewis continued, referring to the managers. Additionally, he said, he and his staff told the other county representatives about their work with Visit Sarasota County to facilitate the local process.

“Not all the plans are the same,” Lewis said, referring to those of the other counties, but they are “very, very similar,” in an effort to help speed up the DBPR approval process.

This is the first page of a list of guidelines for owners and managers of short-term vacation rental properties. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the second page of the guidelines. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lewis also talked of the responsiveness of DBPR Secretary Beshears’ staff members, who replied to Lewis’ May 18 email “within minutes, acknowledging receipt.”

On May 19, Lewis added, he sent another email to the secretary, inquiring about whether any adjustments of the plan would be needed or whether the department would like more information. Again, he said, department staff responded pretty quickly to confirm receipt of that correspondence.

Lewis also pointed out that the short-term vacation rental plans counties submitted to the department over the weekend were approved by May 19.

“It’s been hard to understand why [short-term vacation rentals] were blocked anyway, because hotels have been open,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said during the board discussion.

“I appreciate staff jumping on this,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Lewis and Rissler of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, “because we’re not the ones that closed [the short-term vacation rentals] in the first place, so we’re surprised to hear it’s now our responsibility to figure out how to open them.”