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2 sides debate beach rentals

Harmless family getaways or raucous party houses in flagrant violation of county and city codes?

City commissioners are being asked to decide which description applies to homes on Clearwater Beach rented out by the day or the week.

On one side are real estate agents and rental property owners. They say they have a right to earn income from the homes, many of which were bought as investments.

On the other side are residents who complain that noise, traffic and late-night partying are shreding the fabric of their community.

On Monday night, more than 200 people crowded the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center for a special City Commission meeting to discuss the issue.

Judging from the spirited applause on both sides, it is unlikely that many minds were changed.

David MacNamee, president of the Clearwater Beach Association, said the homes amount to motels in residential neighborhoods. All they lack, he said, are neon signs _ plus the safety and supervision features required in the hotel business.

"The landlords don't screen anything but a credit card," said MacNamee.

But attorney Tim Johnson, who represents several rental property owners, argued that city officials are on shaky legal ground in mounting a crackdown.

"I believe your staff is dead wrong that the current practice is illegal," he said. "What is happening today on Clearwater Beach is legal."

Overnight accommodations are banned in residential neighborhoods. But because overnight accommodations are defined in the code as having been designed and used for "transient use," the definition doesn't apply to short-term home rentals, Johnson argued.

"Not one of these homes has been designed for transient use," he said, adding later: "They could have written it differently, but they didn't."

City officials say the practice violates city zoning regulations, but they acknowledge that the rules could be clearer.

Jeff Kronschnabl, director of the Development Services Department, said beach residents have put together a list of 130 beach homes operating as short-term rentals. And the trend, he said, seems to be growing.

Staff members in the city's planning and legal departments are reviewing the issue.

Meanwhile, no citations have been issued since complaints began last summer; rather, Kronschnabl said, the city has sent a handful of warning letters. More are planned as complaints come in.

City commissioners are expected to discuss the issue next month.

_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

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