A sign captured in front of a home on Harbor Drive in Indian Rocks Beach on Jan 14, 2023 (credit: Mitch Perry)
At a city commission meeting last fall in Pinellas County’s Indian Rocks Beach, local resident Jerry Newton’s frustration was evident. The problem? Short-term vacation rentals in his community.
“Yet another month has passed, Newton said. “In the meantime, there are more hotel rooms and more unfamiliar faces every day next door to our homes. It’s beginning to look like our city leaders are not willing to do anything about this cancer. And the answer that ‘our hands are tied’ isn’t going to cut it.”
John Pfanstiehl, who has lived in Indian Rocks Beach for more than 30 years, agrees, saying that the homes that host vacation rentals in his neighborhood are frequented by transients who he maintains “destroy” the community.
“Residential has no meaning if you allow transient lodgings,” he told the Phoenix in an interview last week. “They really are destroying what was once a peaceful safe community.”
Now, after months of heightened rhetoric at city hall, Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Cookie Kennedy and city commissioners are preparing to unveil new proposed regulations, which in turn is now prompting concerns from vacation rental owners.
Those owners fear that the new measures will go too far and drive down the economic stimulus that such rentals bring to local communities.
It’s the latest battle when it comes to short-term vacation rentals, and there’s more to come. Every year over the past decade, state lawmakers have tried to further limit the ability of local governments to regulate vacation rentals.
So far, the efforts have been unsuccessful.
Here’s the history:
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that prohibited local governments from enacting any new law that restricted the use of vacation rentals, prohibited vacation rentals or regulated vacation rentals, giving that power to the state government.
At the same time, about 75 local ordinances previously on the books were “grandfathered.” After pushback from cities, the Legislature reversed itself in 2014, allowing local governments to handle issues such as noise, parking and trash, but still preventing them from prohibiting or regulating the duration or frequency of short-vacation rentals.
Last year, a bill sponsored by Republican Danny Burgess, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, would have preempted local government’s authority to regulate advertising platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo and have them licensed through the Florida Department of Professional Regulation. The measure failed.
This year, the only proposal filed so far for the upcoming legislative session comes from Miami-Dade Republicans Ileana Garcia in the Senate (SB 92) and Fabián Basabe in the House (HB 105). The two lawmakers would require vacation rental operators to respond to complaints and other immediate problems by providing the local government with certain contact information. Neither lawmaker returned our request for comment.
Industry officials and lobbyists are watching closely.
“Home sharing has been an important part of the fabric of Florida for decades, enabling the region to welcome visitors whose spending supports local businesses and creates economic opportunity for local residents across the Sunshine State,” a spokesperson for Airbnb told the Phoenix in an emailed statement. “We have worked closely with dozens of communities across Florida, and as people continue to navigate the rising cost of living, we are committed to promoting responsible hosting which contributes to the local economy.”
“Expedia Group looks forward to continued collaboration on efforts to support a vibrant travel and tourism economy in Florida this legislative session,” says Paul Seago, director of government affairs for Expedia, which runs Vrbo. He provided the statement in an email but did not elaborate.
Ashley Chambers, a spokesperson for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, says that the organization has “no objections” to the Garcia/Basabe filed bill, but says state law needs to be updated to adapt to the changing landscape.
Among the proposals they’re advocating include an option for local registration so that local governments can better understand and respond to what is happening in their jurisdictions, and vacation rental license revocation provisions. That means if vacation rental operators failed to comply with specified rules, the state could revoke state vacation rental licenses for violations of local registration requirements.
Industry observers say that historically the communities with the most short-term rental issues in the state have been Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, and now Indian Rocks Beach, a city of about 4,000 people located 27 miles west of Tampa. Currently, there are more than 2,168 active rentals in the city, according to AirDNA, which tracks the short-term rental industry. Of those active rentals, 257 are in residential areas, according to Kennedy.
Kelly Cisarik, another longtime Indian Rocks Beach resident, says that her community has evolved into becoming an inviting landscape for young people to frequent due to the pandemic, when most of society shut down for several months and Florida suddenly became a haven for those who wanted to come and party in the Sunshine State.
“We really had this sort of peak rental park fury over the past two years because it was much more attractive to get a bunch of people together and rent a vacation rental,” she says. “We were like the revenge travel for friends and families to get together. That’s the kind of thing we’ve experienced, so we just have revenge travel fatigue.”
Mayor Kennedy has gone to Tallahassee in previous years to discuss short-term rentals with state lawmakers. She says that local officials are much closer to the citizens that they govern and that the short-term vacation rental issue “is one of these situations where (state) legislators should not have gotten involved with.”
“The big thing that many said to me was, ‘this is a property rights issue,’ but when you make that comment, what about the person who’s lived 25 to 40 years next door (to a short-term rental property), what happened to their property rights?” Kennedy said.
Vacation rental critics
In Indian Rocks Beach, the months-long discussion in the city has been fueled by vacation rental critics, which concerns vacation rental owners, who fear that the new regulations could hurt the local economy.
“We’re bringing more money to all of the local businesses, the cleaners, the handymen, the local restaurants – the list is just endless to all the benefits to the economy that the tourism brings,” says Stacey Conte, an Orlando real estate investor who rents out four units in Indian Rocks Beach.
Kenny Hayslett manages more than 90 vacation rental properties in Pinellas County as the head of Bench Time Rentals. He’s all for what he calls “sensible regulations,” but says that the problem is that the city isn’t currently enforcing the laws on the books.
“You can regulate it all you want but if the town can’t enforce their own regulations, how are they going to enforce new regulations?” he asks.
Another Pinellas County beach community, Redington Beach, saw residents vote overwhelmingly last March to totally ban vacation rentals in its residential neighborhoods, and is now waiting a court ruling to determine if that referendum is valid.
In the interim, the city has adopted a series of regulations that some property owners have said they will legally challenge. Mayor David Will has called vacation rentals “a cancer” that erodes local communities.
“Preemption literally prevents you from governing,” Will says. “It prevents your citizens from coming to town hall and voicing their opinion, yay or nay on a particular subject. It prevents a discussion. It prevents a debate. It undermines our democracy.”
The Indian Rocks Beach City Commission’s reform proposals include preparing an ordinance concerning occupancy; hiring a second full-time code enforcement officer and implementing inspection and registration fees into line with other communities related to short-term rentals. They’ll also discuss the format of the Redington Beach ordinance as well.
She says the proposals have been vetted by their city attorney to pass legal muster and believes that they can serve as a blueprint to show other local communities that they have the tools at their disposal to create additions for short-term rentals.
“There is this perception amongst local government officials that there isn’t anything that they can do, and I think that needs to stop. There are things that we can do. And my goal is to get that (information) out,” Kennedy says.
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