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Clearwater council tackles short-term rental ban minefield

CLEARWATER — When the Florida legislative session ended and Clearwater's ban on short-term rentals looked unscathed, the City Council breathed a sigh of relief.

The city's hard-fought ban of hotel-style stays in North Clearwater Beach homes was saved, even as the state forbid new bans against "vacation rentals." Close call, right?

Not quite. With the city now seeking to enforce the ban on Sand Key, officials are finding their trouble was just postponed. If they amend the ban, they risk voiding it citywide.

Backing the ban has become a minefield for the council, which must deal with state pressure, a possible lawsuit and the angering of dozens of condo owners who have depended on the rentals for decades.

On one side they contend with residents complaining that renters' bad manners are a next-door nuisance. On the other, landlords say their property rights demand protection — and they're willing to go to court to prove it.

"I really like none of my choices," council member Paul Gibson said Tuesday, during a rental discussion at City Hall. "This looks and smells entirely like the North Beach situation."

History is not exactly on the city's side. On Sand Key, Lighthouse Towers and the Crescent Beach Club have allowed condo owners to rent 14-day stays for nearly 30 years. And in 2007, a state appeals court set a precedent when it sided with North Beach landlords in their lawsuit against the city, allowing more than 30 short-term rental homes to be grandfathered into law.

Yet as the North Beach battle raged, Sand Key remained silent. Until recently, the city had fielded no rental complaints over the last eight years from Lighthouse or Crescent. Sand Key is farther from the tourists and bustle than North Beach, and its streets are typically quieter during the wild weeks of spring break.

But the lack of complaints wasn't due to lack of rental activity, said city planning and development director Michael Delk. About 80 percent of the 350 or so condos at Lighthouse and Crescent are owned as second homes or investments. The number of short-term rentals nearly equals that of full-time residents.

Some in the towers say the problems proved problematic over time. Allen and Julie Trumbo, in a letter to the city, wrote they had bought their Lighthouse condo for the short-term renters' pay but soured after living among them.

"I have seen 18 people sharing a 1 bedroom condo," they wrote. "The disruption in the public areas is disturbing. We routinely need to add extra security on holidays to handle these people."

The city must enforce its code, City Manager Bill Horne said, even if it conflicts with the condo association's agreement. "When I get a complaint," Horne said, "I can't ignore it."

But showing teeth after a long lull isn't that simple, said Clearwater attorney Marion Hale, who helped North Beach homeowners win their case and has been retained by Lighthouse condo owner Robert Ciccone.

Enforcing and interpreting the law differently, she said, would require an amendment of the city's code. But the state's limit for grandfathered bans ended two weeks ago, making any new amendment too late for law.

"They have ignored this situation on Sand Key for eight years, and now they want to change that and they want to change the rules," Hale said. "They're seeking a cure for a problem that doesn't exist. And when you do that, you can find yourself sticking your hand in a hornet's nest."

Council members on Tuesday made no decision on how to proceed, though no one seemed open to the risk of voiding the ban.

(Vice Mayor George Cretekos, a Crescent condo owner since 1998, recused himself and left the council chambers.)

Council member John Doran said gaps in personnel force the city to respond to complaints only as it receives them.

"If (Hale) is saying because there have been no enforcement actions until now, that stops us from enforcing," he said, "I respectfully disagree."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater council tackles short-term rental ban minefield 06/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 7:44am]
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