MY VERO: Short-term rental regulation doesn’t solve problem

Glenn Powell wasn’t going to change my mind about short-term vacation rentals, which I strongly believe have no business operating in residential neighborhoods.

I knew it. He knew it. Probably, if you’re a regular reader of this column, you knew it, too.

So he didn’t try.

What Powell did do – and quite well, I must say – was defend the makeup, mission, legitimacy and accomplishments of the county’s Short-Term Vacation Rental Advisory Committee.

He also more than ably defended his role and actions as the chairman of that panel, citing his conduct as a longtime local landlord and the regulations he has recommended or endorsed, all of which provided a compelling response to sometimes-personal attacks from those who oppose the controversial rentals.

“I’ve been in favor of smart regulations all along, years before this became an issue,” Powell said, adding that he owns 19 rental properties, including four used as vacation rentals. “I said it then and I’m still saying it: No neighbor should negatively impact another neighbor.

“But this is a very raw, very emotional issue,” he continued. “You say ‘vacation rental’ around here, and somebody wants to put you in front of a firing squad. I fully understand that. There are bad vacation-rental landlords out there and, if not regulated, they could threaten the quality of life in our community. Some people already have been very hurt by them.

“The fact is, though, there are hundreds of vacation rentals in this county, and there are only a handful that create problems,” he added. “We want to make sure those disasters disappear and don’t taint the whole thing.”

So far, so good.

While the vacation-rental market here is “booming,” Powell said, the number of problem rentals is decreasing – to the point where the county has received “no new complaints” since September, when it adopted ordinances prohibiting these homes from being used for special events, such as weddings and reunions, and placing strict restrictions on parking.

It was Powell’s committee that put those regulations in front of county commissioners and recommended the ordinances be passed.

“I wasn’t just in favor of them; I was instrumental in getting them adopted,” Powell said. “The ordinances we recommended were actually more restrictive than what the county staff had proposed, and we’re not done.

“That’s why I keep telling people: Let us do our job, and you’re going to be pleased with what we come up with.”

Having a vacation-rental landlord at the helm of the committee charged with regulating vacation rental properties has raised eyebrows, but at the very least, the committee appears to be trying. The special-event ban and parking restrictions should go a long way toward eliminating the chaos and disturbances short-term vacation rentals caused in the Ampersand and South Beach communities on the island.

Indeed, if the committee follows through with recommendations requiring landlords to acquire county licenses and allow site inspections, mandating tax compliance, limiting occupancy, and enforcing fire and safety regulations – and county commissioners adopt them – the problems created by short-term rentals could all but disappear.

“Only about 100 of the roughly 500 vacation rentals in this county are licensed by the state, but the state doesn’t have the manpower to enforce it,” Powell said. “If we had county licenses, we could require the landlords to present a state license, provide a tax ID number, show proof of compliance with fire and safety regulations, and include contact information for the owner or manager.

“Then we could use our Code Enforcement Division to police it.”

Even if all that were done, however, not everyone would be satisfied.

Some might never be.

“There are some people who won’t be happy, no matter what we do in terms of regulations,” Powell said. “They want us to make short-term vacation rentals illegal here, and we can’t do that. The county doesn’t have the power to do it, even if it wanted to.”

That’s because the Florida Legislature created a 2011 law that allowed local governments to ban short-term rentals only if an ordinance existed prior to the state action.

The City of Vero Beach has had such an ordinance on the books for decades, prohibiting residences from being rented for fewer than 30 days. Indian River County, on the other hand, had no such ordinance in place when the Legislature acted.

Thus, short-term vacation rentals may operate legally in the unincorporated areas of the county.

“The state does allow local governments to regulate it, however, and that’s what the county is doing,” Powell said. “That’s why this committee was formed.”

Critics, though, say the advisory committee is a farce and question the members’ motives.

There have been allegations, both public and private, that the committee was stacked with pro-rental advocates, including some who profit from these ventures and will use their positions to protect their investments.

Not only have some critics argued that the County Commission is allowing an industry to regulate itself, but Powell also has been accused of using his chairmanship to manipulate the committee’s agenda in a pro-rental direction.

“They can’t attack the regulations, so they attack the people who recommended them,” Powell said. “But if you look at who’s on the committee, only two of us have anything to do with vacation rentals. And we’re all in favor of regulation.

“If you look at what we’ve done so far, we’re giving them the regulations they want, and we’re doing it in a way that can’t be challenged by the courts,” he added. “Except for a septic inspection regulation, which would’ve been unenforceable and wasn’t going to work, all of our votes have been unanimous.

“So I don’t see where there’s a problem.”

I do.

It’s in Tallahassee. That’s where this wrongheaded law was passed. That’s where those opposed to short-term vacation rentals operating in residential neighborhoods need to direct their disgust.

Launching attacks on what seems to be a responsive county committee and its chairman won’t change anything.

It’s certainly not going to change Powell’s mind.

He believes short-term vacation rentals are good for our community – that they can enhance neighborhoods, that they boost our economy by generating tourism dollars, that they provide a much-needed option for people traveling with pets or elderly family members who require a home-type environment.

“I think everybody loses,” Powell said, “if vacation rentals go away.”

I think he’s wrong.

People who buy and own homes in residential neighborhoods should not be forced to endure the intrusion and uncertainty of a constant turnover of tenants – on a weekly, bi-weekly and even every-weekend basis – in what amounts to unwanted hotels.

We moved to this county because of its small-town charm, good-neighbor feel and sense of community – not to watch a steady stream of strangers checking in and out of the house next door all winter long.

That doesn’t mean I’m anti-tourism.

I warmly welcome our seasonal residents and visitors. I greatly appreciate the annual jolt they give to our local economy.

But I don’t think short-term vacation rentals belong in residential neighborhoods, regardless of how well they’re regulated.

And nothing Powell told me came close to changing my mind.

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