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Short-term Rental Poposal for Unincorporated Monroe County - September 2009

In recent months Steve Estees of the News-Barometer has written several articles dealing with the issue of reinstituting short term rentals in unincorporated Monroe County.


They are reproduced with permission from News-Barometer below



Short-term rental proposal still alive in county
By Steve Estes

Though public discourse has slowed down in recent weeks, a proposal to revisit the prohibition on short-term rentals in Monroe County is still afloat.
Organizers of the drive to get the Monroe Board of County Commissioners to take another look at the short-term rental issue have been meeting with individual commissioners in recent weeks, outlining their proposal for a new short-term rental program.

Those same organizers need to get at least one county commissioner to sponsor the measure onto the agenda before any proposal can get a public airing.
And that’s not something Mayor George Neugent is prepared to do right now, not because he completely disagrees with the concept, but because he has too many other pressing issues to deal with right now.

“We’ve got wastewater, road money, budget time, downstairs enclosures, a sign ordinance and a couple dozen other hot-button issues to deal with,” said Neugent. “I need to get my plate clean before I can give the time to this issue it deserves. This is something that needs the attention of a single commissioner to make sure it gets a fair public vetting.”
Neugent said there are things about the current proposal that are attractive, “But there still seems to be a loud opposition force out there and all voices need to be heard.”
Neugent said he also hasn’t gotten a feel for what support the measure may have among the commissioners.

“If there’s no support from the other commissioners, why fight the battle?” he said.
Any short-term rental proposal heard by the county commission would affect only unincorporated areas of Monroe County. Every municipality in the Keys already has some form of short-term rental ordinance on the books.

Short-term rentals are geared toward allowing private homeowners to rent their homes for periods of less than 28 days. Rentals of 28 days or more are already allowed under county guidelines. Short-term rentals were allowed until 1998 when commissioners sponsored a non-binding voter referendum on the question. About 51 percent of the voters came out against allowing the continuation of short-term rentals and the BOCC banned the practice in all but a few areas.

Organizers claim, however, that some areas, particularly the Lower Keys, have never quite recovered economically from the effects of that ban, thus the push to have the issue revisited.
Opponents of short-term rentals complained back then that a lack of oversight, both by property managers and county officials, led to severe disruptions of normally quiet residential neighborhoods as transient renters poured in by the hundreds nearly every weekend, moved into a vacant residential unit and proceeded to “party like New Year’s Eve” on a non-stop basis.

And they fear the same thing happening again if the county lifts the ban.
Officials estimate there may be as many as 200 current illegal vacation rentals scattered throughout the Lower Keys, keeping the opposition to them alive.
Organizers have put together a plan, however, they feel addresses the concerns of the residential neighborhoods and stimulates the lackluster Lower Keys economy at the same time.

The highlights of that plan include:
- A fee of $500 or more yearly for a special use permit to run a short-term rental.
- A contract fee of $20 per rental.
- A prohibition on short-term rentals in subdivisions where deed restrictions or homeowner’s associations don’t allow homes to be used in that fashion.
- Mandated responses from property managers or owners of short-term rentals to complaints from neighbors or a fine of as much as $1,000 and loss of permit for continued violations by renters or non-response by property managers.
- A three-year evaluation period of the new proposal.

Proponents say that the fees for permits and rentals would go back to county coffers to help pay for enforcement and administration of the program. The money would be earmarked solely for that use or for personnel to work on eradicating those existing illegal vacation rentals.

“The program would pay for itself,” says Jim Sharpe Sr., spokesman for the group. “It would cost the taxpayer nothing, and would put money in the county budget for other programs.”
Sharpe said many local businesses suffered a 50 percent drop in revenues when short-term rentals were banned because the Lower Keys has so few lodging establishments. Tourists had no place to stay in the Lower Keys, so they moved on to Key West, remained in the Middle or Upper Keys, or just stopped coming altogether.

In the decade since the abolishment of short-term rentals, Sharpe says many of those same businesses have never achieved 1998 levels, employing fewer people and contributing less to the county coffers and the community than they had previously.
He also said that allowing short-term rentals again would aid in the recovery of the real estate market. Owners could cover existing mortgages currently in danger of going in default, and make properties more attractive to buyers.

Opponents claim exactly the opposite would happen as more and more out-of-town owners bought homes to use as vacation rentals, becoming more and more disruptive to residential neighborhoods and causing long-time residents to flee, flooding the market with even with more homes that couldn’t be sold except to absentee owners because families and retirees, a large segment of the home-buying market, wouldn’t buy next door to a vacation rental property.

“Until the group gets a commissioner to sponsor the measure onto the agenda, the plan won’t get a public vetting to see if its as good as the organizers seem to think,” said Neugent.



New position sought for rental enforcement
By Steve Estes

While there is a move afoot in the Lower Keys to reinstitute a vacation rental program that would allow property owners to rent in increments of as little as seven days, the county is considering cracking down on current illegal vacation rentals.

The county abolished most vacation rentals of less than 28 days following a voter referendum in 1998 that turned thumbs down to such a program. Local residents felt as though the vacation rentals were out of control, producing noise, pollution and generally disrupting neighborhoods.

So they voted to abolish most of them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the vacation rentals shut down, however.

There are estimates that more than 200 illegal vacation rentals still exist in the Keys. One report says there are seven in Port Pine Heights on Big Pine Key alone.

Most gated communities are still allowed to rent by the week. All of the incorporated cities have some form of vacation rental program.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners will be asked Wednesday to add one position to the county’s code enforcement staff that will be dedicated to ferreting out illegal vacation rentals.

Code Enforcement Director Ronda Norman has requested “immediate funding of a new…position…for the purpose of the enforcement of the Vacation Rental/Short Term Rental ordinance throughout Monroe County.”

She explains in her memo to the BOCC that the dramatic increase in the number of illegal rental complaints and advertisements have made this difficult to enforce with the limited staff available.

She says that enforcement of illegal vacation rentals is a very time consuming process. It requires more than a normal amount of time in research. Enforcement officers, she says, spend hours researching the internet for ads for illegal rentals, licensing for those sites, permitting of the sites, site visits and personal interviews with renters and property managers.

“I believe that with a dedicated resource we can more effectively enforce the provisions of this code and restore a sense of neighborhood back to the property owners being affected by these illegal operations within their communities,” wrote Norman.

Norman says there are currently 29 licensed short term rentals in unincorporated Monroe County.

According to County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, she has watched code enforcement officers in the Upper Keys spend months on fact-finding to cite an illegal vacation rental, only to have the property owners sell or change the ownership of the parcel, forcing them to start all over again.

The proliferation of illegal short-term rentals has been one of the stumbling blocks local organizers have come across in trying to reinstitute a legal vacation rental program in the Keys.

Neighborhoods have already begun to organize to fight any return of the vacation rental program with county sanction because they are still feeling what they term “detrimental” affects of vacation rentals that are illegal.

Part of the program outlined by the group of businessmen seeking to get the county to take another look at vacation rentals included permits and fees, as well as fines, that would go back to the county to fund up to three dedicated personnel for illegal rental enforcement and administration of a new program.

As part of the agenda summary for Wednesday’s meeting, county staff said the code enforcement department had a specialty officer for illegal vacation rentals, but as staff dwindled, the position began to be used for general code enforcement purposes.

“Later, budget constraints forced the elimination of this position. The restoration of this position will allow a more proactive effort to enforce illegal vacation rentals throughout Monroe County,” states the summary.

Murphy has said that if the business group can convince her that they have some concrete solutions to enforcement the vacation rental program, she might be persuaded to take a look at it.

The addition of that position is projected to cost the county about $54,000 per year. The money has already been budgeted.




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