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Host occupied vacation rentals voted down

MELISSA REID
Associate Publisher
mreid@lbknews.com

During a heated discussion among commissioners, the City of Sarasota voted 3-2 against changing the city’s current vacation rental ordinance. Commissioner Hagen Brody made the presentation for changing the city ordinance, specifically to allow for what is known as “Host Occupied Vacation Rentals,” where the homeowner is on the property and rents out a room in their home to vacationers. The meeting began with a YouTube video made by Airbnb on the concept, which was presented by Brody.

Commissioner Willie Shaw led the charge against the idea of changing the vacation rental ordinance.

“I’m not as comfortable with this. People were renting rooms already in Gillespie Park. Opening this door takes away our first ordinance, and the state’s ordinance will take over. We have fought long and hard for our current ordinance because it impacts the hotel industry. We have an ordinance; it’s seven days. If we change this, then the state changes it automatically. Any crack in the door, opens us up to forced changes by the state. Don’t make me believe this is just a mom and pop type of operation,” said Shaw.

The State of Florida has a recently enacted law that prohibits cities from making ordinances that would put restrictions on vacation rentals and allows homeowners to rent for as many or as few days as they wish, unless the city already has an ordinance in their code that is grandfathered in. The City of Sarasota’s current seven day minimum vacation rental restriction is currently grandfathered in, and any changes to this ordinance by the city, could remove the grandfathered status allowing the state ordinance to take effect.

Brody tried to explain the idea of host vacation rentals, differentiating that the homeowner is on the property and that it is therefore a more controlled situation and allows the homeowner to make financial ends meet. This enables homeowners to keep their homes in an economic environment where property owners would usually lose their home.

Shaw countered, “You keep saying ‘hosting’ but the language is saying ‘short-term rentals.’ Hosted, not hosted, is not the problem. We’re talking about short-term rentals. I don’t want to lose anything we’ve got.”

Mayor Liz Alpert and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch both took issue with the lack of information provided on the subject before heading into the meeting from Brody, who was the presenter.

“I wish you could have given us more information so I could be more informed,” said Alpert.

“I want to know what data we have. I want to know where it has worked and where it hasn’t worked,” said Ahearn-Koch.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie was also concerned that the city would lose its grandfathered status if any changes were made to the existing ordinance on vacation rentals.

“I want to know if by changing anything we lose our current grandfathered ordinance,” said Freeland Eddie.

City Attorney Robert Fournier addressed Freeland Eddie’s concerns.

“I don’t know confidently that we won’t lose our entire rights with our current ordinance. I don’t want the assignment from the commission to look into crafting an ordinance, because we’re not there yet,” said Fournier.

Alpert also noted, “I don’t want to create a situation like Anna Maria Island where there is house after house of just Airbnb’s and the owners are corporations out of town.”

Over a dozen residents spoke in opposition and support of the Airbnb idea of host occupied vacation rental.

“This has a huge financial motivation by Airbnb,” said one resident.

“I have been hosting for Airbnb for several years, and we abide by all the rules and act as a tour guide for the city,” said another resident.

Residents in Lido Shores and northern Siesta Key seemed to have the most problem with the enforcement of the current code and vacation rentals.

“The home next to us (Lido Shores) was purchased by a corporation. On the vacation rental website it says it sleeps 17. You never know in that house who will be coming and going. The City cannot control the ordinance they have in place now,” said the Lido Shores resident.

A north Siesta Key resident echoed the sentiment, “I’ve been asking the city to bring a particular home into compliance for six months. He (Timothy Litchet) said he’s waiting for direction from the commission and there is a lack of staff to enforce it.”

Director of Development Services Timothy Litchet spoke to the commission and addressed the issue of enforcement of the current code.

“I don’t recall saying I don’t have the staff to enforce the code, but I do remember saying that I was waiting for the issue to come before the commission tonight,” said Litchet.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked Litchet if he thought the current code was enforceable.

“The number of complaints are minimal but we certainly have some. My foreclosure specialist is on this issue right now, but we don’t have a particular person in charge of enforcement of this,” said Litchet.

According to Litchet there have been 57 complaints over the past 18 months regarding violations of the current seven-day minimum vacation rental ordinance. Litchet also told the commission he was instructed to compile all this information by City Manager Tom Barwin for Commissioner Brody.

Brody assured the commission that this issue was brought to him by residents for consideration in changing the ordinance and that he did not stock the audience in the commission chambers with people who were in favor of an ordinance change.

Shaw again spoke out against changing the current ordinance, “For us to add to this is going to create greater confusion. You are opening a door on total confusion on our part and you’re allowing us to be exploited.”

Ahearn-Koch added, “I cannot make a decision that is going to make any changes on such a small amount of information. There are a lot of issues here. I think we should enforce the rules that we have, there are abuses happening. If we cannot enforce what we have now, then we should not add to it.”

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