CLEARWATER — Beach homeowners are mobilizing against two bills speeding through the state Legislature that could squash Clearwater's long-standing ban on short-term rental homes.
The rentals, homeowners say, are the bane of the beach: crowded with parties, scattered with trash, loud into the night. They say spring break hordes skirt the city's ban, turning the manicured streets of North Clearwater Beach into strips of seedy motels.
But state legislators, acting on suggestions from the vacation rental industry, have proposed forbidding local governments from treating "vacation rentals" differently than other homes, effectively axing the ban.
If passed, the bills — SB 476, sponsored by state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker; and HB 883, sponsored by Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee — could become law as soon as July.
"For me, it's a simple issue of fairness," Rep. Horner said. "These folks shouldn't be discriminated against. If you have a concern that someone's throwing loud parties, you should pass a noise ordinance and apply it across the board."
Beach residents and City Council members said the legislation could have unintended and disastrous consequences for beach neighborhoods, with Mayor Frank Hibbard saying it amounted to "open season" for rental landlords.
Clearwater Beach Association vice president Jerry Murphy, who lives in a cottage on Mandalay Avenue, said a dozen renters packing into one small home is common during the beach's busy months.
"They don't know how we live here," Murphy said. "They're vacationers, and they don't see any need to keep the lid on things. We've got a lot of strange people walking around in our neighborhood that we don't know."
City Council members also called the legislation an attack on home rule, and said state politicians are trying to redefine local law. Clearwater leaders in 2003 banned home rentals shorter than a month.
"This is pure, unadulterated micromanagement," council member Paul Gibson said. "I'm sure if Gov. Scott found a short-term rental next to his house, and all of the parties and noise it created, we might have a different deal."
Though new short-term rentals are banned, 31 homes on North Beach remain open for rent. In 2007, a state appeals court sided with beach landlords who called the city's law too loose and a breach of their property rights. The court decided the ban applied to any property that started the practice after 2003, when the city began to enforce the ban in earnest.
One of those landlords who won in court, David Allbritton, rents out the Sandpiper and Beachcomber, two-bedroom duplex homes on Mandalay Avenue. At up to $1,600 a week, the homes come with king beds, living rooms, a gas grill and a Florida room. As a perk, renters can borrow bikes, rafts, tennis rackets and beach toys.
Allbritton — who, in keeping with the law, must hold a special license and pay a 12 percent tourism tax — said his rentals don't degrade into sordid mini-motels. He cleans regularly, tries to filter out rowdy crowds and rents mostly to families.
"We don't want to get a bum rap," Allbritton said. "We're licensed. We pay our taxes. We try to do it the right way. A lot of (landlords) don't."
In Tallahassee, the bills in question are cruising easily through committee votes and have yet to find major resistance. Last Monday, the City council sent state Sen. Dennis Jones, the Seminole Republican chairing the Regulated Industries committee, a letter expressing "profound concern" with the bill. The next day, Jones' committee voted unanimously in support.
Council members said the bills — now before the House's economic affairs committee and the Senate's judiciary committee — seemed heavily skewed toward the rental business.
The bills would reclassify "resort condominiums" and "resort dwellings" as "vacation rentals" and add an eleventh member, from the Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, to the state's advisory council. Contribution records show the real estate, lodging and tourism industries have given Rep. Horner's campaign more than $65,000 since 2007.
Horner said the bills helped defend local property rights from unfair rental bias. Vacation rentals, he said, are "a very important segment of our hospitality industry. They deserve the recognition this bill affords them."
Contact Drew Harwell at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.