INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — As short-term vacation rentals continue to thrive in this Gulf front community, City Attorney Randy Mora sensed some residents gathered in City Hall on Tuesday expected him to make them all go away. So he let them down gently.
"I’m sorry, this is a bad situation regardless of which side of the line you’re on," Mora said. "We cannot change the past, we cannot change what has been done to date. What we can do is adapt."
As vacation rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO have boomed over the past decade, the state Legislature has restricted local governments from regulating the duration and frequency of stays. In response, cities are devising creative workarounds to control party houses and de-facto hotels in residential neighborhoods — many getting sued in the process.
Indian Rocks Beach is the latest city to consider an ordinance targeting vacation rentals, this one requiring the homes be registered with the city, have a 24-hour emergency contact, issue rental agreements with all occupants’ information and post noise and trash rules in the home.
Tuesday’s workshop was an early step, with Mora not expecting the ordinance to go before the City Commission for a vote until late summer.
For resident Flash Gordon Williamson, it can’t come soon enough. He said his waterfront neighborhood has gone from homey to touristy, bringing new visitors every week who disrupt the once-quite lifestyle.
"It used to be we’d go to the beach and see Chuck and Cheryl on the way, Pat and Sandy on the way," Williamson said. "Now it is honestly like a sci-fi movie where it’s invasion of the neighborhood snatchers. It’s no longer a neighborhood. It’s now a resort community."
Ashley Russell, who rents out her condo on First Street to vacationers, said regulations would only burden responsible homeowners bringing tourists and visitors to local businesses and restaurants and contributing to the local economy.
Russell said her unit is equipped with a crib, a high chair and baby-proof appliances, catering to family vacations instead of bachelor parties.
"I do not want spring breakers or college parties at my vacation rental any more than you do," she told the crowd at City Hall.
The Legislature passed a law in 2011 preventing local governments from regulating short term rentals in virtually any capacity, just as online rental platforms were really breaking into the tourism market.
Local restrictions on the books before 2011 were grandfathered-in, like Clearwater’s 2003 ban on rentals shorter than one calendar month.
But the law made it so cities that altered their existing ordinances in any way lost them entirely. That’s what happened to Indian Rocks Beach in 2012 when officials tried to change wording in a broader review of land use amendments.
In 2014, the Legislature eased up and amended the law to only prohibit cities from regulating duration and frequency of short term rentals.
This triggered a flood of lawsuits as cities tried to regulate number of occupants, require annual inspections and other workarounds in response to residents’ complaints about party houses and shift in neighborhood character.
Given this landscape, Mora said Indian Rocks Beach’s ordinance is purposefully cautious.
It would require homeowners to register with the Department of Revenue, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and secure a business tax receipt from the city, which technically are already required for businesses even though many rental hosts blow off the rules.
He said the only real new imposition is requiring a designated emergency contact, whose information would have to be posted on the dwelling.
Airbnb Florida Policy Director Tom Martinelli said the company is not against regulation. But what Indian Rocks Beach is proposing, similar to ordinances enacted in various South Florida cities, will not resolve the noise, trash and parking complaints for problem rentals, which are a small minority of vacation homes.
He said burdensome regulations only discourage compliance and that cities should enforce existing noise and trash ordinances to tackle offenders instead.
"Their theory is that more regulation equals less people wanting to do this," Martinelli said. "If history is any indicator of how this works, that is going to fail."
Airbnb is by no means the only online platform hosts use to rent out their homes. But it is one of the only companies to collect tourism tax on behalf of hosts upfront, now with agreements in 39 Florida counties.
Last year, Airbnb paid $1.87 million in bed tax to Pinellas County on behalf of its hosts and $562,000 in Hillsborough County, according to its 2017 report.
If the Legislature is preventing cities from banning short term rentals outright, Commissioner Philip Wrobel said it’s the city’s obligation to regulate what they can within the law. He cited residents’ complaints about living next to homes where hosts allow a dozen visitors to stay in an 1,100-square-foot home.
Some of the homeowners are investors who buy houses as a business, with no connection to the area at all.
"You have people right now that own homes in Indian Rocks Beach that probably have never been here," Wrobel said. "It’s not a problem that will ever go away unless we do put some regulations in place... it’s always going to happen as long as Tallahassee ties our hands. Period."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.