There's little debate that an illegal short-term rental market is thriving in the seaside towns of Pinellas County.
The evidence is in the out-of state license plates in driveways, the weekly rotation of visitors in suspect houses and the online ads boasting availabilities by the week.
But as cities' code enforcement staffs struggle to keep up with violators through fines alone, local leaders are now turning to the state for help. The Barrier Islands Governmental Council has asked the Florida Legislature to repeal a 2011 law, amended in 2014, that took away cities' ability to regulate the duration and frequency of short-term rentals. The Pinellas County Mayors Council is considering asking the same.
Local restrictions on the books before 2011 were grandfathered in, but cities that change even a word in the existing ordinances will lose their law entirely. And cities that had no local ordinance before the state law, like several Pinellas County municipalities, are left with no options.
"This is a perfect example of how home rule is gradually being chipped away at by legislators in Tallahassee," said R.B. Johnson, mayor of Indian Rocks Beach, which lost its short-term rental ordinance in 2011 when officials tried to change the wording. "They believe they know what's best for us and see elected officials as nothing but busybodies putting restrictions on their private property. They don't understand there's a give and take in cities so people can live comfortably next to their neighbors."
Despite Redington Beach's 2008 law banning rentals shorter than six months, Claudia McCorkle said homes on her Gulf Boulevard waterfront routinely host tourists by the week.
Opponents like McCorkle liken short-term rentals to illegal hotels, since many are unlicensed and skirt taxes while disturbing the vibe of a residential area.
"It's like a turnstile every other week of different families or a combo platter of families all joined together in a house," McCorkle said. "The children run wild screaming and yelling and it's just obnoxious, and it has totally destroyed the character of the neighborhood."
After a homeowner took Redington Beach to court last year over the validity of the short-term rental ordinance, officials stopped trying to enforce its now-8-year-old law. The case was settled to allow the homeowner to rent short term under certain conditions, but the city spent more than $40,000 in attorneys' fees and court costs, a risk that officials are not willing to take again.
Town attorney Jay Daigneault said officials are hoping a state law change would remove any doubt that cities have the authority to regulate the duration of rentals. To avoid more legal challenges in the meantime, the town hasn't issued a single short-term rental violation fine in over a year, even though a simple online search of rental websites shows there's no supply shortage.
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"As our law presently stands, when we enforce it, what happens is we get sued," Daigneault said. "Rather than picking this up one property at a time, inviting lawsuits, I think the better solution is a change in the (state) law."
More than 17 million tourists stayed in vacation rentals across the state in 2013, resulting in a $31 billion economic impact, according to a 2014 study by the Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association.
Executive director Denis Hanks said any homeowner renting out a house short term is required to be licensed and to pay local and state taxes just like the rest of the hospitality industry.
Hanks said vacation rentals support small businesses because homeowners typically hire local landscapers, cleaners, plumbers and managers.
He said cities should be able to control parties and garbage with noise and trash ordinances. And many collect significant bed tax from properly licensed homes.
"You can get some valid complaints, and I feel bad for ones with valid complaints of parties and other things, but that's usually a sign of bad management," Hanks said. "That's somebody trying to manage a business from afar. Whereas our property managers, they'll be talking to neighbors on a daily basis. They're kind of the eyes and ears working with the neighbors."
But Terry Teunis, Clearwater code compliance manager, said most of the homeowners who violate the city's short-term rental minimum of one calendar month are not licensed and are not paying taxes for their businesses.
Many advertise their homes on rental websites like VRBO or Airbnb, and some try to avoid fines by telling code enforcement the guests are relatives instead of customers.
Although both have met with local mayors and sympathize with the concerns, neither state Sen. Jack Latvala nor Rep. Kathleen Peters said they foresee legislative action on short-term rentals next session.
Latvala voted in favor of the 2011 law but said he did not realize it would prevent cities from being able to edit ordinances already on the books.
"I would be supportive of trying to get that changed, at least to allow at a very minimum the communities that had longstanding ordinances in place to enforce their ordinances," Latvala said, adding that he doesn't plan to sponsor a bill on the issue. "That's at least what we need to do. It would probably be a little harder to let communities that didn't have ordinances put them into place."
For Catherine Cowart, however, it's a matter of property rights.
She and her husband bought a Madeira Beach home in 2003 as a rental property, three years before the city passed its three- or six-month minimum, depending on zoning.
Cowart, a Tampa resident, said she believes her home is eligible to be exempted from the limitations — especially because her regular international guests who stay one to three months are quiet and respect the neighborhood.
But after receiving a violation notice in January, she sued the city, asking the circuit court to declare their short-term rental property legal.
"You have a legal right to rent out your home," Cowart said. "What you shouldn't have a legal right to do is have people there making too much noise."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.