Amid new landscape, Indian Rocks Beach revisits short-term rental regulations

Cultural changes and legal clarity over the past few years have set the stage for cities to take another crack at the divisive issue.
City Attorney Randy Mora attends a meeting addressing short-term rental policies at the Indian Rocks Beach City Commission chambers on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Indian Rocks Beach.
City Attorney Randy Mora attends a meeting addressing short-term rental policies at the Indian Rocks Beach City Commission chambers on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Indian Rocks Beach. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Feb. 6|Updated Feb. 6

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — The hundred-plus people crowded into the small chambers at City Hall had been instructed to hold their applause, their shouts of agreement and dissent. But after hours of discussion — and with hours of public comment still to come — City Attorney Randy Mora thought at least a kind word was due.

“It’s not often I congratulate policymakers,” he told the Indian Rocks Beach City Commissioners sitting around him last month, “but I want to congratulate you on having a civil discussion.”

For months, this tight-knit beach community of fewer than 4,000 people has been building toward what’s happening now, what will take until at least this spring to sort out: a reconsideration of how it regulates short-term rentals.

There have been vitriolic public workshops. Neighbors show allegiances through the signs they post outside their homes: “Homes not hotels!” one sort reads in screaming red. When commissioners took a first look at a potential framework for a new ordinance last month, the tone was so measured that several people, on the dais and in the audience, commented on it.

Even if the City Commission were interested in picking sides, though, it wouldn’t be that simple. State law preempts cities from outlawing the rentals or regulating duration or frequency of stays, leaving cities, for the past decade, to figure out just how far they can go.

Indian Rocks Beach has been down this road before. In 2018, the commission passed an ordinance levying fines for rental operators who fail to get business licenses or who break rules on noise, trash and parking, all among the core complaints of the anti-rental side.

Then came the pandemic and, soon after, a boom for local Airbnb and VRBO owners, thanks to Florida’s relatively loose COVID regulations and the increasing popularity of remote work. Those owners have argued that the rentals are key drivers to the city’s economy. Opponents believe they’re nuisances altering the fundamental fabric of their community.

Meanwhile, courts have upheld regulations on occupancy and safety in Flagler County and Holmes Beach. The cultural and legal landscape has set the table for the current discussions in Indian Rocks Beach, which Mora said are emblematic of what’s happening statewide.

It’s “a community representative of the struggles that a lot of our communities in Florida face as our neighborhoods fundamentally shift,” he said in an interview. “Communities have to adapt, and they’re often left with imperfect solutions.”

City commissioners at last month’s meeting walked through the features of a possible new ordinance. They came to a consensus on its key features: Occupancy would be limited to 10 people in residential areas, 12 in its commercial-tourist district. Rental owners would have to pay a $400 registration fee and another $400 every year, so that the city’s regulatory efforts are self-funding. The city will also seek to hire a special magistrate to oversee rental-related code violations.

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The proposed ordinance will get two more public hearings before being finalized, a process Mora said could take until well into the spring — and that’s assuming there’s no new statewide legislation this year that preempts what the ordinance aims to do.

But Luke Lirot, a prominent Tampa Bay attorney who represents some rental owners, said the city is already going too far. It should focus on more aggressively enforcing the ordinances it already has on the books, he said, rather than establish new ones, making it more onerous for responsible rental owners to operate.

Lirot said he worried stricter rules would drive rentals out without formally banning them.

“Are they trying to achieve through the backdoor what they can’t do through the front door?” he said. “A lot of my clients believe that’s exactly what’s going on.”

Mora said the measures the city commission has discussed aren’t intended to be onerous. Nor should the city commission be too spooked by the specter of lawsuits, a word invoked several times by pro-rental speakers at last month’s meeting.

“The threat of a lawsuit alone should not be like, ‘That’s the end of it, guys,’” he said. “Because not all claims are meritorious, and some things are worth fighting for.

“That’s what the policymakers will have to decide.”