MADEIRA BEACH — Residential property owners could face $500-a-day fines if they are illegally renting their homes to tourists.
That is the stern warning contained in a letter the city is mailing in the next week to nearly 3,000 property owners.
"I am going to start enforcing our codes the day after this letter is received," City Manager Shane Crawford told the City Commission Tuesday.
The city is already aware of individual properties that are renting on a short-term basis and "will soon start knocking on doors," he said.
The city's code enforcement officer, sheriff's Deputy William Lawson, said he is ready to send additional registered letters to out-of-state property owners, if necessary, to notify them of violations.
"Once the city's letter is sent, it's game on," Lawson said.
Lawson said he is coordinating enforcement procedures with the State Attorney's Office.
The letter reminds property owners that the city restricts their ability to rent for less than a year.
City codes put into place in 2006 limit single-family, duplex, triplex and townhouse residential properties to no less than six-month rentals in some zoning districts and no less than three-month rentals in others districts.
In the past, city attempts to enforce the restrictions often failed, mostly because it was difficult to prove whether or not people living in a home were tourists or relatives.
"We're not going to buy that story anymore that they are a brother, sister or uncle," said Commissioner Elaine Poe, who has been investigating the issue since November, even before she was elected, in an effort to get the city to crack down on illegal short-term rentals.
Now she has the entire commission, the city manager and the Sheriff's Office on board.
Poe says she found almost 2,000 individual short-term online rental listings for Madeira Beach in April alone.
The problem is not confined to single-family homes, according to Poe.
She said at least one condominium tower is planning to crack down on owners who improperly rent their units to tourists.
"We have become a year-round, short-term rental community. People cannot find a place to live in Madeira Beach for more than six months," Poe said. "It's become a real problem."
Even Crawford found it difficult to find a rental home when he was hired as city manager.
"We don't have a whole lot of year-long rentals out there in the city. People are making too much money," he said.
Instead, many homes are being rented at prices as high as $400 a night and $6,000 a week.
Most rentals are done through the Internet, according to Poe.
"These property owners don't know if they are renting to Jack the Ripper or Mother Teresa,'' Poe said. "It has turned into a nightmare for their neighbors."
Complaints to the city range from noise and increased traffic to loud, all-night pool parties.
Another issue facing the city is that some properties actually can legally rent for shorter periods — even by the day or week — if they are grandfathered under previous codes.
Crawford said he will not be surprised if many properties fall into that category.
However, to claim that status and avoid the hefty fines, the city is requiring that property owners show proof they rented their properties on a short-term basis before 2006 and have continued to do so since then.
Proof includes payment of city business taxes and rental agreements both before and after 2006, as well as proof that the property is registered with the state Division of Hotels and Motels.
In addition, when obtaining a current business tax receipt, property owners now must submit to a city property inspection to ensure the structure meets all city building codes.