April 13, 2024

Fight over whether DeSantis should veto vacation rental bill escalates

Vacation rental management companies, Florida Realtors and others are urging a veto; the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association wants the governor to sign it.

TALLAHASSEE — A persistently contentious debate about regulating vacation rentals has escalated into a clash between two powerful industry groups after the Florida Legislature passed a measure that would significantly restrict how local governments can oversee the properties.

The bill, finalized in the waning days of the 2024 legislative session, has drawn intense opposition from vacation-rental management companies, coastal community leaders and Florida Realtors, an influential real-estate industry group that is urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the measure.

“The bill fails to strike a fair balance between the rights of private property owners to rent their property on a short-term basis and the ability of local governments to regulate these rentals,” a website set up by Florida Realtors says. The website allows visitors to submit emails detailing complaints about the bill directly to the governor’s office.

Meanwhile, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, also a politically prominent industry group, has enlisted its members and is appealing to the governor to sign the bill (SB 280), which was a priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.

DeSantis has not formally received the measure, but the lobbying comes on a topic that has been among the Legislature’s most controversial issues over the past decade.

The bill would preempt regulation of vacation rentals to the state while allowing local governments to have short-term rental registration programs that meet certain parameters. The bill would “grandfather” in regulations adopted by counties before 2016 — an exception that applies only to Flagler County, home to House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

The bill would scrap city ordinances enacted after 2011, doing away with registration programs already adopted by many coastal communities as the use of online platforms such as Airbnb ballooned.

“It’s an existential threat to single-family zoning. Because having a mini-motel pretending like it’s single-family zoning right in the heart of every single-family-zoned street is not single-family zoning. … It’s a commercial enterprise. Period,” Melbourne Beach Mayor Alison Dennington told The News Service of Florida on Monday.

Dennington, who was elected last year, said regulation of vacation rentals was a major issue during the mayoral campaign and is her constituents’ top concern. The legislation, if signed, would do away with regulations her city adopted in 2020.

“We have ordinances that we passed we spent a lot of money on and did a lot of work on,” the mayor said. “This seems to wipe those out in favor of a bureaucratic agency.”

The measure would require the state Department of Business and Professional Registration to set up a database with information about vacation rentals and assign a “unique identifier” to properties. Platforms would have to include the unique identifier and any local registration numbers on advertisements or listings for the property and collect and remit sales taxes on rentals.

State law currently requires vacation-rental operators to be licensed by the state agency, which listed 53,961 licenses for 171,921 addresses as of Monday.

But the state lacks an accurate count of vacation rentals, experts say, because some operators have a “collective” license for multiple properties and others aren’t licensed at all.

For example, the platform VRBO’s website showed 191,095 properties when searched for Florida rentals on Monday — about 20,000 more than the number of addresses in the state’s database, which includes licenses that are “delinquent.”

The legislation ready for DeSantis’ consideration “includes very big, positive steps forward in accomplishing a comprehensive statewide regulatory scheme for vacation rentals,” Samantha Padgett, general counsel of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in an interview.

Padgett pointed to two parts of the bill she said are critical to help “close the gap between what is listed and what is licensed.”

The measure would require that platforms submit quarterly reports to the state identifying all of the units that are listed on their sites, as well as the license number and the location. It also would require each unit to have a unique identifying number, something lacking in the state’s current system.

In a letter to DeSantis seeking his support, Padgett’s group called the bill a “practical balancing of the many interests” impacted by the industry.

“While the bill is not perfect, it is a strong start. It moves us toward a robust and meaningful system to address this growing lodging sector in Florida,” Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association President and CEO Carol Dover said in the message, which also was circulated among the group’s members.

The plan would allow officials to suspend registrations for “a material violation” of local codes that do not apply solely to vacation-rental properties. It would also allow local officials to charge a “reasonable fee” for registration inspections.

The measure, in part, seeks to address “party houses” in beachfront communities by restricting how many people could stay overnight at properties.

The bill would set maximum overnight occupancy at “two people per bedroom, plus an additional two people in one common area, or more than two people per bedroom if there is at least 50 square feet per person, plus an additional two persons in one common area, whichever is greater.”

Jacksonville Beach Vice Mayor Sandy Golding said the proposed changes would scrap a registration ordinance the city adopted in 2019 and make it problematic for local officials to ensure visitors are protected.

“This bill, I will say, has some good elements to it and it’s a good start but I feel it’s not where it needs to be and it’s certainly not addressing the issues that the cities need to have help with,” Golding said.

Under the bill, the state could issue temporary licenses to operators while their applications are being processed. The measure also would set up a process that would allow operators to start renting properties before they are inspected by local officials. Golding said her city inspects all vacation-rental properties before registration.

“We have found that there’s a high incidence of issues,” Golding said. “It’s all about safety. It’s not about making it impossible for vacation rentals to operate. It’s about making sure that they’re safe for the guests.”

Vacation-rental operators and management companies also want DeSantis to scrub the bill.

“There’s a lack of due process in the whole thing as well, where local governments can ask to take an advertisement down but then there’s really no process for people to appeal” without going to a magistrate or court, Denis Hanks, executive director of Florida Alliance for Vacation Rentals, told the News Service.

“But then in the meantime they aren’t able to advertise the property. Now what do you do with the guest who is now booked to come to Florida?” he added.

Tags: News Service of Florida

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