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County looks to gain from rentals

The commission wants to regulate vacation rental businesses, while homeowners associations fight to keep them out.

County commissioners have abandoned any plans to ban short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods and instead are working on plans to regulate the industry.

But homeowners associations whose members are weary of new faces next door every other week and constant, late-night parties need not give up. A recent appeals court decision in favor of the Autumn Oaks subdivision ruled that short-term rentals violated the community's deed restrictions.

Though the ruling will have little effect on the county's regulations, it does set a precedent for other homeowners associations, which have long complained that renting out homes for vacationers is tantamount to running a business, said Chief Assistant County Attorney Barbara Wilhite.

"But I don't think there's any carry over to the county's ordinance," Wilhite said. The government is not the same thing as a private homeowners association and can't require or ban some of the things that private groups can, she said.

But homeowners associations can cite that case when they sue to uphold private deed restrictions.

Donald Peyton, the New Port Richey lawyer who represented the Autumn Oaks subdivision, said the Circuit Court ruled _ and the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld _ that running a vacation house is a business. Peyton said the owners of the house, a couple from England, were paying the required sales tax on the rentals.

"I thought that simply bolstered the fact it was a business," Peyton said.

That plus the fact that more than one family was staying in the house convinced the judge that the house was indeed a business and thus in violation of Autumn Oaks' deed restrictions, Peyton said.

William Vinson, the Dunedin lawyer who represented the English couple, said his clients have already filed a motion for rehearing with the appellate court. Vinson said he thinks the court interpreted the deed restrictions too broadly. A 1993 change in the Autumn Oaks deed restrictions to limit rentals shows that the original intent of the restrictions was to allow short-term rentals, he said. Vinson said he hopes to get another chance to make that argument.

If he doesn't, the ruling could give most homeowners associations a boost in court. Mel Phillips, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said about 90 percent of all homeowners associations have the same kind of deed restrictions as Autumn Oaks.

Not that associations will run to court because of this ruling, Phillips said.

"I don't know what Autumn Oaks spent on this lawsuit," Phillips said, adding that such lawsuits can run legals bills that reach $20,000. Not all homeowners associations can afford to sue to defend deed restrictions, even though most prohibit any kind of commercial activity in residential neighborhoods.

"Therein lies the problem _ the cost of doing this," Phillips said.

Those costs are the reason why the county still needs the short-term rental ordinance county officials are ironing out, Phillips said. In its current form, the rental ordinance, pushed by Commissioner Steve Simon, would require agencies that rent out the houses to register with the county, keep a log of visitors, pay the hotel bed tax and post certain information in the house, like garbage pickup day.

The money the county collects through the registrations would then be used to hire additional code enforcement officers to work evenings and weekends when permanent residents often have problems with vacationers.

"The answer is in the middle ground," Simon said, explaining why he doesn't think a full ban of the rentals will work. Real estate agents have said a ban could hurt the county's tourism industry.

The Land Development Regulation Commission, an advisory committee to the County Commission, will hold a workshop to discuss the ordinance at 5 p.m. Wednesday in commission chambers in the west Pasco government center, followed by a meeting next week. The County Commission will take up the matter again next month.

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