How would you like to have the house next door to you knocked down and replaced with a hotel?
That's what it feels like on the City of Sarasota's Lido and St. Armands Keys. These purpose-built, high-occupancy rental properties--dubbed "Hotel Houses" by nearby residents--feature up to eight bedrooms, most with their own en-suite bathrooms, and advertise sleeping up to 24 people in beds. Nearby residents describe extreme nuisance behavior from the weekly turn-over of large groups of people.
The character of the neighborhood is changing due to these over-built houses with pools sometimes located in front yards and too few off-street parking spaces for the number of occupants. There is real concern that these City neighborhoods will start to look and feel like some areas on Anna Maria Island where this issue was not addressed in time. The State might not call these things hotels, but, to the people who live next to and around them, it feels exactly like living next to a hotel.
Hotel Houses seem to be an illegal use.
The City of Sarasota essentially allows a single use for property located in a residential neighborhood. That one use is called "household living" which is defined as occupancy by a family (no more than four unrelated persons) for longer than one week.
But these Hotel Houses appear to be purpose-built to accommodate large groups which do not meet this requirement. With their large number of bedrooms and the services that they provide to guests, they could be said to meet the City's definition of a hotel which is not allowed in a residential neighborhood.
Further, a review of the mortgage documents for these properties reveals that they were built exclusively for commercial use which may contradict what was represented to the City on building permit applications. And while any City resident should be allowed to have large numbers of guests from time-to-time, a Florida Court of Appeals has ruled that "the frequency and intensity of large groups at a rental property is not typical residential usage as measured by common practice" (Bennett v. Walton Cnty., 2015 Fla. LEXIS 2745 Fla., Dec. 9, 2015).
Hotel Houses are a public safety and economic issue.
The State of Florida licenses vacation rentals as they do hotels, but vacation rentals are not subject to the same stringent rules and regulations that hotels are. In fact, the State leaves it up to local municipalities to conduct building code and fire safety inspections of vacation rentals.
Company Granicus' Host Compliance software reports that the City of Sarasota has over 1,000 vacation rentals. Does the City know where these are? Does the City know if guest rooms have the required (and operational) smoke detectors? Does the City know if they are operating lawfully by obtaining the required State license and paying the required State, County and City Taxes? Does the City have the ability to quickly contact the owner of a vacation rental if there is any sort of health or safety issue there?
Large groups of renters would be better served by the City's many legitimate, rule-following and tax-paying hotel and resort businesses which are already located in zones that are kept separate from residential areas. Hotels and resorts not only provide jobs to the local workforce, but their several operational areas and layers of management provide career opportunities as well. This distinction between jobs and careers is significant. Guests at the City's hotels and resorts inject just as much money into the local economy (if not more) as they would at a vacation rental.
Many Florida communities have already dealt with this problem.
The City Attorney has put forward a Vacation Rental Ordinance modeled after those already adopted in many other Florida communities. The ordinance does two things: it places an occupancy limit on vacation rentals (e.g. no more than 10 overnight guests) and it requires an annual registration with the City.
The occupancy limit solves the problem: it makes it uneconomical to build an eight bedroom house to accommodate large groups, which in turn reduces nuisance behavior and protects the character of the neighborhood. The annual registration is the enforcement mechanism: it allows the City to suspend the registration of a repeat offender.
By passing this Vacation Rental Ordinance, City Commissioners will protect residents and neighborhoods, ensure public safety, and maintain the integrity of the City's zoning code and Florida license and tax requirements. They will be solving the problem with a proven, successful approach. This solution can be applied narrowly and unobtrusively to just the affected neighborhoods, with a rental registration program that pays for itself.
There has been ample time for public input and Commission consideration.
Hotel Houses have been on the agenda of three City Commission meetings over the past year:
January 21, 2020: Residents present the Hotel House problem to the City Commission which votes 4-1 to instruct the City Attorney to research the issue and come back with recommendations
September 21, 2020: After a long delay due to the Covid crisis, the City Attorney brings his recommendations to the City Commission which votes 5-0 to instruct him to codify his recommendations into an ordinance (Commissioners Brody, Alpert and Ahearn-Koch all vote YES to this)
February 2, 2021: After hours of discussion and public testimony during which citizens speak overwhelmingly in support of the Vacation Rental Ordinance, only Commissioners Liz Alpert and Jen Ahearn-Koch are willing to move it forward to a second reading. Unfortunately, Commissioners Hagen Brody, Erik Arroyo and Kyle Battie vote to continue the first reading to a March or April Commission meeting, further delaying the relief that residents have been asking for (for well over a year) and which they desperately need.
Commissioner concerns are being addressed.
On February 12, 2021, representatives from both the St. Armands Residents Association and the Lido Key Residents Association met with the City Attorney to recommend the following changes:
Clarify that the ordinance only applies to vacation rentals and not to owner-occupied ("hosted") rentals or to rentals of a month or longer
Confirm that no Florida City has ever paid a single dollar for a "Bert Harris Act" claim related to vacation rentals; the City has no liability
Limit the scope of the ordinance to only the affected neighborhoods and subdivisions, and make sure that the Lido Hotel Houses are included
Replace the in-person building inspection with a signed, self-inspection checklist which makes this ordinance less intrusive and which reduces City costs and lowers the annual fee
Use a tiered registration fee where smaller rentals pay less and larger rentals pay more, to match the increased costs and City service requirements caused by the larger vacation rentals
It's time for the City Commission to vote YES on the Vacation Rental Ordinance.
The public has asked for help and has been kept waiting for well over a year. There has been ample time for public input and Commissioner consideration. Commissioner concerns are being addressed. It is time for the City Commission to vote YES on the Vacation Rental Ordinance.
UPDATE! Commission Votes 5-0 to advance ordinance to 2nd Reading.
On April 6, 2021, the City Commission finally votes to advance the Vacation Rental Ordinance to a second reading scheduled for May 4, 2021:
This was a unanimous vote to move the ordinance forward by all five City Commissioners
It still needs to be decided if the ordinance will be limited to the City's coastal island neighborhoods or if it should be implemented City-wide
The public safety aspect of this ordinance received significant discussion among the Commissioners and still needs to be sorted