With split vote, City Commission refuses to authorize research into potential amendment to its short-term rental ordinance

Commissioner Brody urges his colleagues to allow the city attorney to look into issues regarding home rentals, with owners on premises, for less than a week

The City Commission sits in session on Sept. 17. File photo

After spending almost two-and-a-half hours on the topic, the Sarasota City Commission voted 3-2 on Nov. 19 to deny Commissioner Hagen Brody’s request for the city attorney to research a potential amendment to the city Zoning Code that would allow vacation rentals of less than a week in owner-occupied homes.

Only Mayor Liz Alpert supported Brody.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion to turn down the request, saying, “[Agenda] Item XIV.1 dies now.”

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie concurred with Shaw.

The discussion also resulted in a period of confusion that a city department director finally cleared up. While the commissioners thought staff was advocating a city Zoning Code amendment, it turned out that Tim Litchet, director of the city’s Development Services Department, had written a staff memo based on information from Brody. Staff had no recommendation at all on the owner-occupied home rental issue, Litchet said.

Speaking to his colleagues from the side of the dais where staff normally sits, Brody explained that over the past several months, he had been “hearing more and more about this [short-term rental] issue [in the city]. … I understand that it has heightened emotion on both sides.”

Home-sharing, he pointed out, and vacation rentals are very different. A lot of people in the community, he continued, have big empty homes or rooms over garages, he added, noting the latter are common in Gillespie Park. People could rent rooms, he said, to supplement their incomes.

Andrea Weissleder, who lives west of the Tamiami Trail, told the commissioners she and her husband have been renting a private area of their home — with two bedrooms and two baths — for the past six years. “We draw people from all over the world who are used to traveling with Airbnb. These people are our guests,” she said, and they follow her and her husband’s rules for conduct.

The Weissleders charge $100 a night and include breakfast in the fee, Andrea continued. Their home is in a single-family neighborhood, based on Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records.

“There’s nothing affordable to travelers in this town,” she added, referring to hotels and similar accommodations.

Commissioner Hagen Brody addresses his colleagues on Nov. 19. News Leader photo

Brody also maintained that home-sharing is not covered by the Florida Statute that governs short-term rentals.

When owners are present, he continued, they not only impose rules but they also monitor the activities of their guests. The practice brings tourists to neighborhoods visitors typically do not see, he added.

The situation is very different, he argued, from the types of short-term rentals provided for in the city ordinance, which must be for a minimum of a week.

However, Shaw argued at numerous times during the discussion that Brody’s advocacy for an amendment to the section of the city Zoning Code that governs vacation rentals would end up with the city’s losing its grandfathered ability to enforce the activity in any capacity.

That is because a state statute governing short-term rentals does not apply to any local law, ordinance or regulation in effect on or before June 1, 2011. The city ordinance was in effect in 2002, according to material provided to the commission in advance of its Nov. 19 regular meeting.

Shaw characterized Brody’s initiative as “an attack on home rule.”

“Opening this door,” Shaw said, “brings us to [state] pre-emption … at the local level. … This pre-emption takes away that grandfathered ordinance that we have.”

Nonetheless, a city staff memo included in the Nov. 19 agenda packet said, “It is my understanding from discussions I have had with representatives of Airbnb that there are ways jurisdictions may modify their zoning regulations without violating the preemption their codes have on long term rentals …” The memo cited recent changes made by the City of Orlando “to allow host occupied vacation rentals … in residential zone districts.”

Airbnb is an internet-based company through which travelers can find accommodations all over the world.

A misunderstanding

After 17 people addressed the commission — pro and con on Brody’s proposal — Mayor Alpert asked Litchet, the Development Services director, to respond to board questions.

During the discussion prior to the public remarks, commissioners had referenced part of the city staff memo for the agenda item.

Tim Litchet answers commissioners’ questions on Nov. 19. News Leader photo

Under the heading “Administration’s Recommendation,” the memo said, “Authorize the City Attorney to draft a zoning text amendment that will allow for host occupied vacation rentals, using the expedited zoning text amendment process allowed by the zoning code, and direct staff to not pursue code compliance actions related to host occupied vacation rental units until the zoning text amendment process is completed.”

At one point during the discussion, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch had said, “I want to see case studies. … I want more information than less … I feel like there was just nothing in here for me to go on,” referring to the material accompanying the staff memo.

“My big question,” Mayor Alpert had said at another time, “is why we weren’t provided any of this research ahead of time so we could have had more information to go on by the time we got to tonight.”

As a result of questions posed to Litchet, it became apparent that — contrary to the implication in the staff material — staff had not proposed any change in the ordinance to allow host-occupied home rentals. Brody apologized for the misunderstanding after Litchet explained that Brody had asked him to prepare the backup agenda material for the presentation Brody had asked to be scheduled on the Nov. 19 agenda.

Litchet said he and Brody had discussed the issues multiple times. “I was instructed to prepare the agenda request,” Litchet added, referring to direction to express Brody’s views.

In response to a direct question from Ahearn-Koch, Litchet added, “I hope they’re Commissioner Brody’s opinions. … There is no staff recommendation on this.”

Litchet pointed out that he had explained to Brody that a text amendment process would be appropriate for the change Brody was seeking in the city ordinance.

When she found no backup material to support what she thought was the staff’s opinion, Ahearn-Koch told Litchet, “I was confused.”

“Is any of this from staff at all?” Commissioner Freeland Eddie asked Litchet.

All he did, Litchet responded, was provide the exhibits, including the applicable state statute and the city Zoning Code section, as well as email exchanges involving staff, including several relating to Airbnb rentals within the city.

“This is a policy issue,” Litchet told Freeland Eddie.

“I apologize,” Brody said. He had not read the staff memo until just before the Nov. 19 meeting began, he added. “I was really happy about it,” he continued, indicating that he thought Litchet was recommending the zoning text amendment Brody was seeking. “Something got missed in translation.”

A Lido Shores property owner who addressed the commission earlier — Stuart Cassel — also accused Brody of changing the focus of the discussion because of opposition among residents of that community to a change in the city short-term rental ordinance.

Many Lido Shores residents have fought any change to the short-term rental ordinance because of problems they say they have witnessed with guests coming and going at houses in violation of the city ordinance that a week’s stay is the minimum required in single-family residential areas.

A plea for pursuing the research

This is a section of the city ordinance dealing with short-term rentals. The highlighted sentence, Commissioner Hagen Brody says, opens up the possibility of home-sharing without the city’s losing the grandfathered status of the ordinance. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

At the outset of his presentation, Brody showed his colleagues a video produced by Airbnb. Featuring mayors of major cities, such as New Orleans and Jersey City, as well as a former mayor of Houston who sits on Airbnb’s advisory board, the video advocated for home-sharing.

Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor, talked of how home-sharing allows people to maximize “the value of their most expensive asset.” Renting homes gives people extra income to pay their property taxes, for example, she said, while their communities benefit from extra revenue produced by tourist and sales taxes.

Communities that allow home-sharing, Brody explained, often use an annual registration process, so they can keep better track of their programs.

In the City of Orlando, for example, Brody said, revenue produced by registrations has paid for the hiring of a staff person dedicated to the program, and that person also investigates vacation rental violations.

City resident Herb Lustig, an advocate for home sharing, provided the board this material. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then he pointed out that his research had found that Airbnb has 250 host-occupied properties in the city of Sarasota; 60% of those hosts are women.

Brody added that Litchet of Development Services had reported no problems with rentals of host-occupied properties.

However, when the board members questioned him later, Litchet told them, “I don’t have specific data on that.” Brody had reported to him that Brody had found no problems, Litchet added. However, Litchet acknowledged that it was “common sense” to believe that fewer problems would occur if the host were on-site while guests were staying in homes.

Then Litchet reported that city staff had had about 57 complaints related to Airbnb rentals over the past “18 months or so.” He was not certain how many of those involved host-occupied houses, he added.

Material accompanying the Nov. 19 agenda item, which city resident Herb Lustig had submitted, said that 50 of those 57 notices of violations “were mailed in response to citizen complaints,” and 60% of the complaints were made by one individual. The documents noted that from Aug. 30, 2016 through Aug. 24, 2018, the city mailed out about 2.2 notices a month regarding complaints.

Commissioner Freeland Edie then asked about one speaker’s comment that evening, indicating Litchet had said he did not have sufficient staff to enforce the city’s short-term rental ordinance. Litchet replied, “These are difficult cases; they’re time-consuming.”

Still, Litchet added, when violations involve Airbnb hosts, his staff has told him that Airbnb will “work with the host unit … and have them come into compliance.”

“I don’t have a specific person tasked with this right now,” Litchet said of the enforcement of the city ordinance.

As the discussion neared its end, Brody again asked for his colleagues’ agreement to let City Attorney Robert Fournier undertake research to determine whether the Zoning Code could be amended to allow host-occupied rentals without risk of losing the city’s ability to enforce its other short-term rental regulations.

“You are opening the door to total confusion on our parts on this,” Commissioner Shaw told him. Neighborhoods are what make the city a real community, Shaw added.

Commissioner Willie Shaw engages in an exchange with Commissioner Hagen Brody on Nov. 19. News Leader photo

“I agree,” Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch said. “This is something that we should not be unpacking.”

“I think the only thing we can legally do right now,” Freeland Eddie added, “is determine if we can do anything [without losing the grandfathered status of the ordinance].”

Finally, Shaw said, “Can we get a consensus to stop this madness? … It’s 11 o’clock!”

Then he moved that the commission deny the request to have Fournier research the issue.

Ahearn-Koch seconded the motion.

After the vote, Alpert and Brody were in the minority on the 3-2 decision.