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Legislation Could Limit Growth Of Vacation Rentals


TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — Local governments want back some control over short-term vacation rentals, contending that a nearly 3-year-old state law has allowed little-regulated mini-hotels to grow amid residential communities.

But supporters of the 2011 law say Florida has achieved three consecutive years of record-setting tourism numbers in part by allowing homeowners to seasonally rent their properties. 

A vacation rental is considered any property that is leased more than three times in a calendar year, each time for periods of fewer than 30 days.

The Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities and Flagler County are among supporters of measures (HB 307 and SB 356) advancing through the Legislature that would lift a provision in the 2011 law that prohibits local governments from making new rules to ban, restrict or simply address issues involving vacation rentals.

The law has resulted in businesses and investors buying and remodeling foreclosed and distressed residential properties strictly to attract vacationers seeking places to stay during the winter and spring seasons, said Casey Cook, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities.

"Every city is different. Tallahassee is different than Jacksonville, which is different from Orlando, which is different from West Palm Beach," Cook said. "We need to give our cities the flexibility to come up with solutions that work for their community."

The 2011 law also bars communities that had prohibited vacation rentals prior to June 1, 2011, from now allowing properties to be used in such a manner.

The current legislation was spurred by a rental advertisement in Flagler County for a home, which is in the middle of a residential neighborhood and features 11 bedrooms and could accommodate 24 people at one time, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor of the Senate measure, said last month when his bill was before the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

"It's distracting to the people who live around there and caused them a lot of concern," Thrasher said at the time.

Officials in Flagler County contend that an increase in homes being used as vacation rentals has raised concerns about negative effects the rentals have on neighborhoods.

"The issue isn't about whether or not someone rents a home to vacationers," Flagler County Commission Vice Chairman Frank Meeker told The Daytona-Beach News Journal. "The issue is about buildings that are being constructed in residential neighborhoods with a dozen bedrooms and 10 baths with the intention of using them as mini-hotels."

An Oct. 22 opinion from the Attorney General's office—requested by Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed—concluded that since the county had a local zoning ordinance for single-family homes that didn't restrict vacation rentals when the 2011 law went into effect, the "zoning ordinances could not now be interpreted to restrict vacation rentals." 

The Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association opposes the proposed changes, which have already completed the Senate committee process.

Association President Paul Hayes is lobbying lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to reject "any legislation that would ban vacation rentals or violate the property rights of these business owners."

Hayes, in a statement released Friday, contended the proposed changes "are risking these jobs and threatening the property rights of owners by allowing the ban of vacation rentals." 

The state Division of Hotels and Restaurants reported that in 2013, of the 37,155 public lodging establishments in Florida, 10,362 are licensed as vacation rental dwellings.

The association's release was timed with an announcement Friday from the governor's office that Florida attracted an estimated 94.7 million tourists last year, about a 3.5 percent increase over 2012. 

The House measure, sponsored by Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, and Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, has already been backed in a 10-3 vote by the Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee. Two additional hearings—before the Local & Federal Affairs and the Regulatory Affairs committees—have yet to be scheduled.

The Senate companion advanced with little opposition in the Community Affairs and Regulated Industries committees. Thrasher and Hutson both represent Flagler County.