"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville" is OK, as long as you stay in a hotel or motel. That's the message from Monroe County officials who recently passed an ordinance banning house rentals less than 28 days. The new law, which covers unincorporated Monroe County, went into effect in January. A similar law covering Key West will go into effect later this year.
For years homeowners throughout the Keys have complained of rowdy, hard-partying tourists who invade quiet residential neighborhoods for a few days at a time, bringing their boats, barbecues and blenders. Thefts, vandalism and other petty crime are a constant concern, residents say. The noise can be horrific. "I don't mind tourists, as long as they're not in my backyard," says Charlie Mills, 66, a retired contractor from New Jersey now living on Summerland Key and the president of the Keys Wide Civic Association. "Vacation rentals are businesses, and business establishments don't belong in a residential neighborhood."
Last October the Department of Community Affairs agreed. In a 60-page recommended order, a state hearing officer found that short-term visitors were less likely to act like good neighbors and more likely to harm the environment. Supporters also say that the ban on short-term rentals will help relieve the region's shortage of affordable housing. Unincorporated Monroe County has about 4,400 licensed vacation rentals. Thousands more are unlicensed. Violators -- leasing agents as well as property owners -- face fines of up to $500 per day, 60 days in jail, or both. Within days of the law's effective date, citations were issued.
Not everyone is happy with the ordinance. Chuck Vowels, president of Latitude 24 Realty on Big Pine Key and president of the Monroe County Vacation Rental Managers Association, says the ban on short-term rentals sends a not-so-subtle message that tourists are not welcome. He says clients have already called up to say they will vacation elsewhere this year. "I'm not sure I blame them," says Vowels.
The rental association, together with the Marathon and the Lower Keys chambers of commerce, are challenging the new law in court. Their attorney, Kenneth Plante, argues that state and county officials failed to document the economic impact of the new law. A private study commissioned by the association estimated a loss of $300 million annually to the Keys economy, including up to $6 million in tourism taxes. County officials dispute the figures, insisting that tourism will only marginally decline, with many visitors simply opting for hotels and motels.
Opponents also dispute the claim that the short-term rental ban will ease the affordable housing crunch. Most rental homes, Vowels insists, are valued in the $300,000 to $400,000 price range -- far beyond the means of most workers. They also challenge the assumption that the ban will lessen the impact on the environment. Vacation rental homes are filled, on average only 30% of the year, according to Vowels, so banning short-term rentals will bring full-time residents to many of them, placing an even greater strain on municipal services and the environment.
Many residents are unconcerned, insisting that their primary objective is preserving a quiet, carefree way of life. Indeed, in January Key West residents successfully lobbied city officials to reject an expansion plan at the city's port. The expansion, which had the support of local shopkeepers and restaurant owners, would have greatly increased the number of cruise ship visitors. "People have always wanted to come here because the Keys are a very special, beautiful place," says Mills. "Keeping them that way sometimes may come with a price."
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