MADEIRA BEACH — The owners of a home here are fighting the city over its crackdown on short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.
Randall Luzier and Dr. Catherine Cowart of Tampa own a three-bedroom home on Crystal Drive they say qualifies for a grandfathering exemption from the city's ban on short-term rentals.
In their lawsuit against the city, they are asking the Circuit Court to force the city to stop any code enforcement against their property and declare their use of the property legal.
They claim they purchased the property in 2003 with the intent to rent it to tourists. At that time, the city did not prohibit such rentals.
City rules now ban renting single family homes for less than three or six months, depending on the property's zoning, yet many homes are being rented by the week or even weekend.
On Jan. 19, the city sent the property owners a notice of code violation. Less than a week later, the lawsuit was filed against the city.
The only way around the short-term rental ban is if a homeowner can show that their home had been used as a tourist rental prior to the passage of the 2006 ordinance, had been continuously used as a short-term rental since then, have a city occupational license and have paid sales tax on all rental income.
If they cannot do that, and few can, homeowners faces potential fines of $250 a day if they fail to comply.
Sheriff's Deputy Chris Kohmann, who is responsible for most code violation investigations in the city, has identified nearly 100 properties that are suspected of violating the short-term rental code.
Most are advertised online. Others are reported by neighbors.
"I hear all sorts of stories," said Kohmann. "People will say they are family members or friends, relatives. The property owner may tell the renter to say they are staying for three to six months. Owners will lie to my face. I investigate and confront them, and ultimately they admit they are renting short-term and apologize."
Although the city has had the ordinance in place for about 10 years, it only began to strictly enforce it last year. The city tries to work with homeowners, according to City Manager Shane and often send multiple letters informing them they are violating city ordinances.
But for intransigent property owners, a formal violation is filed with the city's Special Master and a court-like trial is held.
About nine cases have made their way to a Special Master hearing so far and all have been found in violation of the code.
To date, most have not been fined, but are charged legal fees that can rise to $1,000 or more.
Unpaid fines or fees are converted to a property lien, which must be paid before a property can be sold.
"We have been successful," Crawford said. "People are now aware of and understand the law. Some were unaware of the rule against short-term rental, but others know and rent to tourists anyway. They are on our radar."
Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. The rental home in Madeira Beach co-owned by Dr. Catherine Cowart has not been up for sale any time in recent years. In addition, according to Cowart, the home has not been rented on a weekly or weekend basis.