Airbnb partiers at million-dollar Tierra Verde mansion trigger complaints

Renters of a Tierra Verde mansion in foreclosure trigger neighbors' complaints.
Published June 27 2016
Updated June 28 2016

Even at $999 a night, Robert Lauby had no trouble finding renters for the 5,500-square-foot waterfront home in Tierra Verde that he listed on the popular website Airbnb.

"Seriously, it was the best Airbnb experience ever!'' raved one group of guests, who shared the five-bedroom, five-bath mansion in March. "Great experience in St. Petersburg!'' enthused the "eight guys'' who rented in May.

They also had high praise for Lauby, who describes himself on Airbnb as a fun-loving host "looking to get out of the corporate world.''

Founder of Supplementwarehouse.com, one of the nation's largest online sellers of vitamins and supplements, Lauby is among the millions of people who rent out homes and rooms short-term to budget-minded travelers. But his situation is unusual.

For one thing, Lauby doesn't own the million-dollar Tierra Verde house, which has been in foreclosure for years. And the influx of rowdy "guests'' is raising hackles and concerns in the quiet, upscale community in southern Pinellas County.

Between Jan. 30 and June 13, Pinellas sheriff's deputies responded to 17 reports of domestic disturbances and what one neighbor called "loud and obscene'' parties at the home on Seventh Street E. Deputies made nearly 20 "house checks'' on their own in just the two months between April 9 and June 8, logs show.

Dr. O. Suliman, who lives across the canal, said "large numbers of guests'' regularly arrive to spend Friday and Saturday nights or three-day weekends. At times as many as 20 cars have been parked in the driveway and nearby.

"They start at 6 or 7 p.m. and go to the next day — one went to 11 a.m.,'' he said of the guests. "I have no problem if people are quiet and courteous and cordial, just not going on all night with the loud music and foul language.''

Scott McEwen, father of 4-year-old twins, moved his family from Tampa to what he thought would be a peaceful, safe neighborhood.

"It's turned into a real party zone,'' he said. "They're partying hard at all hours of day and night. They are still partying at 9 a.m., and these guys are getting wasted and come ripping out of there. You don't have to hit one of my kids at more than 10 mph to kill them.''

On Monday, the 46-year-old Lauby downplayed the complaints.

He said he has roommates who pay him to stay at the house, but insisted he had rented it out just twice through Airbnb. Only one of the rentals resulted in a noise complaint, Lauby said.

"I worked with police to kick everybody out of the home,'' he said. "That was what I would call a party, up late at night.''

Lauby said other noise was due to "socializing,'' not partying, and that neighbors were exaggerating any problems. "The neighbors here are very fussy,'' he said. "I've had them yell at me at 3 in the afternoon. If there is any noise coming off that porch, no matter what time of day, they're going to call police.''

Sheriff's logs show that more than half of the calls and house checks were after midnight. Nonetheless, Lauby said no one is allowed on the porch, which overlooks the canal, later than 9 p.m. He also said he pulled the Airbnb ad Monday.

Originally from Milwaukee, where he started Supplementwarehouse.com in the mid 1990s, Lauby bought a home on St. Pete Beach three years ago for $1.086 million. Last year, he was arrested in Pinellas on a felony charge of possessing a controlled substance, ecstasy, and was placed in a pretrial diversion program.

Lauby said he occasionally rents the St. Pete Beach house out on Airbnb as well, dividing his time between that house and the one on Tierra Verde.

Built in 1989, the Tierra Verde house has a diverse history of tenants and owners.

For several years, it was the home of Mark Calaway, a professional wrestler better known as the Undertaker. In 2000, he sold it to Timothy Walters, founder of Big Tim's Bar-B-Que, a popular St. Petersburg restaurant. After Walters died, the house went into foreclosure. Last year, his elderly widow signed a quitclaim deed giving control of the property to Kevin Byrne, a Tampa real estate broker and investor, for what Byrne said was several thousand dollars and help in moving.

Although now assessed for tax purposes at nearly $1.1 million, the house was in such bad shape that Byrne said he spent around $20,000 on repairs that included replacing the dock. Although the house is still in foreclosure, Byrne said he is negotiating to buy it from the bank; meanwhile, he has been renting it to Lauby since January for around $3,000 a month.

Neighbors said Lauby easily could have pulled in far more than that each month if the Airbnb rentals have been as frequent as they think. Lauby did not say how much he collected through Airbnb rentals.

To level the playing field with hotels, Florida began taxing Airbnb rentals last year. In Pinellas, everyone renting through the company pays a total of 13 percent in sales and tourist development taxes. However, it is not possible to determine from tax receipts how much Lauby might have collected in actual rent because those tax records are private.

Although the ad disappeared from Airbnb on Monday afternoon, neighbors remain skeptical that the days of loud "socializing'' are over. They plan to keep a close eye on the place.

"We don't have a choice because our back porch is overlooking his back porch,'' said Gaye Wurzbacher, whose home is across the canal. "It's not that we're purposely watching him — it's just that it's part of our life now.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

     
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