City gets aggressive in short-term rental fight

Satellite Beach is cracking down on companies purchasing residential properties to offer them as illegal short-term vacation rentals.

The City Council is directing staff to seek injunctions against the practice. Taking the matter to the courts is seen as a “bigger hammer” than traditional code enforcement fines to combat what’s been described as putting a mini hotel in a neighborhood.

Satellite Beach City Attorney James Beadle on June 20 asked the council to authorize him to file a civil lawsuit to seek an injunction against unnamed companies with multiple homes involved that provided short-term rentals against local laws already in place. The measure passed unanimously.

Code enforcement was ineffective because of different renters and the challenge of collecting fines as a deterrent to the practice. Short-term or vacation rentals began to flourish as people tried to keep investment properties out of foreclosure after the real estate market crashed; and online services like Airbnb, Vacation Rentals by Owner and others made it easier to market and rent these properties by the night or the week with a simple, pre-paid transaction and no involved leasing process.

Opponents of short-term rentals say the practice is hurting property values in many cities around the state by creating commercial activity in residential areas.

Cities were preempted from regulating vacation rentals in 2011 by an act of the Florida Legislature after lobbying by vacation rental managers and well-funded corporate interests like Disney, under the guise of property rights. But that legislation included a provision that “grandfathered in” any ordinance regulating vacation rentals approved prior to June 1, 2011. Satellite Beach had an ordinance in place by the deadline.

After a proposed repeal of the 2011 law was thwarted by vacation rental interests at work in Tallahassee, a watered-down compromise bill was passed in 2014 amending the language to allow cities to regulate short-term rentals through life safety and building codes, as well as other codes specific to vacation rentals. However, cities are still prohibited from regulating the duration and frequency of these rentals, as well as regulating these properties through zoning.

Even “grandfathered” cities like Satellite Beach are reluctant to amend their ordinances to address the problems out of fear of potentially losing their grandfather status.

And the problems do seem to be growing in Satellite Beach. Several city council members had received citizen complaints about the illegal short-term vacation rentals, a trend which also is starting to be banned in larger cities.

Satellite Beach City Attorney James Beadle suggested for the council to authorize him to file a civil lawsuit to seek an injunction against unnamed companies with multiple homes involved that providing short-term rentals against local laws already in place. Code enforcement was ineffective because of different renters and it was hard to collect fines as a deterrent to the practice. The measure passed unanimously.

“These are businesses that are operating in residential neighborhoods, that’s basically what they are. They disturb the residential character of our neighborhoods,’’ said city councilman Dominick Montanaro.

Long-time city activist and sustainability board member John Fergus supports the new enforcement tactic, but only if the city truly commits to defending the crackdown.

“It will bring a bigger hammer. Beat them to death with whatever you have. If you go to court with it, and the city prevails, I think it will send a strong message to the other of these groups. As much as you can, make sure that you are on the winning side,’’ he said.

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