Illegal short-term rental fine up to $5,000 wins County Commission’s unanimous approval

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

First they listened to two Siesta Key residents talk about the travails of living near homes rented continually to visitors. Then the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously on Feb. 26 to approve imposition of a fine as high as $5,000 for violations of the county’s short-term rental laws in districts zoned for single-family homes.

Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, told members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) on Jan. 10 that the new fine could be applied, for example, in situations when loud noise late at night at illegally rented homes proves disruptive to neighbors. The Code Enforcement amendment, he explained, was proposed on the basis of language in the Florida Statutes.

The fine previously could not exceed $250 per day for a first violation and $500 per day for a repeat violation of the county regulations handled by the Code Enforcement Division.

A Special Magistrate — a court official who presides over Code Enforcement hearings — would have to find a violation “to be irreparable or irreversible in nature” to impose a $5,000 fine, the amendment says.

“It’s a start,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out of the Feb. 26 action. “But every time we think up a law, somebody thinks up a way around it.”

“There’s proposals now before the state that would take away many local governments’ rights to regulate [short-term rentals in neighborhoods of single-family homes],” Chair Charles Hines added. “I don’t understand why. … We need to be vigilant.”

The amendment was to go into effect as soon as it had been filed with the Office of the Florida Secretary of State. Donna Thompson, the county zoning administrator reported that it typically takes two business days for the filing to be processed in Tallahassee.

Joe Volpe, an SKA director, testified during the Feb. 26 public hearing that he lives on Treasure Boat Way, just north of Siesta Village. On behalf of the nonprofit’s members, he explained, he has been working with county Code Enforcement Officer Susan Stahley — who works on the Key — on means to prevent illegal short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.

“The owners of these houses play dumb, say they don’t know the rules,” Volpe told the commissioners. “The real estate people play dumb, say they don’t know the rules.”

A house across the street from his home, he continued, “is rented every five to six days.” Yet, Volpe pointed out, county regulations prohibit the rental of a home in a single-family neighborhood more than once every 30 days.

Another house near his residence, he added, is advertised for three-day rentals.

A group from Texas, Volpe said, occupied a house three doors down from his home on one occasion. The tenants, he added, were “partying like crazy, swearing up and down.” Around midnight, he continued, a woman across the canal called over to the group, asking, “‘Could you please keep it down.’”

“They threatened to kill her,” Volpe said.

The SKA has submitted a letter to the County Commission, Volpe added, asking for more measures “to help straighten out this problem of illegal rentals.”

Margaret Jean Cannon, who also addressed the board on Feb. 26, acknowledged that she lives in a nine-condominium complex on Beach Road, in a multi-family home zoning district, which has different rental rules. Nonetheless, she described situations similar to those Volpe has related to SKA members over the past couple of years: trash cans remaining at the curb for days after renters leave, awaiting the once-a-week Waste Management collections on the Key; and multitudes of vehicles, some in yards.

“The neighborhood residents are contacting Code Enforcement or the police on some regular basis about what’s going on,” Cannon told the board, referring to overflowing trash and late-night noise. “I think there has been an impact on the character and livability of my community.”

Cannon provided the commissioners a sheet showing internet advertisements for homes on Siesta Key that sleep from 14 to 24 people. Owners of two multi-story houses across from her condominium complex on Beach Road advertise that the structures can sleep up to 26 persons, she added.

“We don’t even have the ability,” she pointed out, to know who the owners are, so they can be contacted in the event problems with tenants arise.

The island has few hotels, Cannon said. Therefore, “More of these [homes] are becoming a commercial operation with multiple people owning them and renting them out.”

Annually, she continued, that is reflected in the fact that the total “bed tax” revenue from Siesta accommodations make up the highest percentage reported for all the locations in the county where the 5% tax is collected.

Cannon also suggested the commissioners consider hiring more Code Enforcement officers and pay for the Sheriff’s Office to hire more deputies to handle issues on the Key.

“I think that your handout alone is just startling,” Commissioner Detert told Cannon. “This is a new wrinkle in vacation homes that started on the other coast [and is spreading] to wealthy communities.”

“Stay vigilant with your state representatives,” Chair Hines advised Cannon. Neither last year nor this year, he continued, has he seen action in the Legislature that recognizes “impacts that are occurring in residential neighborhoods.”

In making the motion to approve the amendment to the County Code, Commissioner Alan Maio — who represents Siesta Key as part of his District 4 territory — told his colleagues, “We keep hearing the horror stories. I think staff is trying to do everything they can,” while still ensuring that due process is afforded people accused of illegal short-term rentals.

Behavior such as “out of anybody’s bounds of partying,” Maio added, “is completely inappropriate in residential areas with single-family homes.

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