A Florida House subcommittee voted 9-6 to approve a bill that would all but erase local governments’ authority to regulate vacation rentals this morning. It was the second House committee to advance the bill, which has also won approval by a Senate committee, pointing to growing momentum for a measure that would have considerable impact in Flagler County.
The bill is strongly opposed by Flagler County government, whose attorney, Al Hadeed, and County Commissioner Donald O’Brien, addressed the Careers and Competition Subcommittee this morning. Flagler led the battle to restore local regulatory control over vacation rentals three years ago, and wrote an ordinance that served as the template for many towns and counties around the state. The bill approved today, by Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican, would return state law to a 2011 standard, when local governments were barred from writing local regulations targeting vacation rentals.
Flagler County government had staked its chances on killing the bill in this particular committee because Rep. Paul Renner, who represents Flagler, sits on the panel and had pledged to do what he could to halt the bill’s momentum. He tried.
“Flagler County was ground zero for the 2014 statute,” Renner told the subcommittee. “The same parties that spoke for it and against it today struck a balance, and over the last several years I think that has been working. I’ve told constituents that wanted greater restrictions that we needed to keep this deal in place and let it work. I think it has been working.”
The argument could not overcome La Rosa’s argument, framed as a property rights issue. “The properties that are being used are no different than the properties that are around,” La Rosa said. “What I’m asking is that you don’t treat the vacation properties than any other properties that are there.”
It was just past 10 a.m., two hours into the committee meeting, when the bill was taken up, the last of 12 on the committee’s agenda. Just before introducing it Halsey Beschears, the chairman of the committee, joked that the panel’s work was done that day—an attempt at humor to defuse some of the controversy that has surrounded the issue. Every committee that’s heard the bill faced large contingents of proponents and opponents. Today was no different, with two dozen people registering to speak. Opponents outnumbered proponents, but that’s seldom reflected in the vote on contentious issues: the vacation rental industry has deep pockets, residents scattered across the state in various communities don’t, at least not as an organized force.
Two amendments to the bill had been filed in the past 24 hours, one by Beschears, one by Randy Fine, another member of the committee (both are Republicans). Beschears’s would have required vacation rentals to follow specific definitions, qualify for certifications and follow registration requirements. The amendment appeared to impose constraints on the La Rosa approach. But Beschears withdrew it after presenting it.
Fine did the same, after summarizing his amendment, which would have required vacation rentals to be restricted and defined as commercial businesses, different from residential homes.“It’s not so much the hotels I’m worried about, it’s the folks who live in the residential neighborhoods who watch it be transformed into a commercial area,” Fine said. But, he added, he would just withdraw the amendment and vote against the La Rosa bill.
The arguments from proponents and opponents of the bill broke down along sharp lines: proponents followed the La Rosa theory that all properties should be treated equally, while opponents described that premise as fundamentally wrong: short-term rentals are not residential homes, but businesses, as even the state Department of Business and Professional Regulations define them.
Hadeed and O’Brien briefly appeared before the subcommittee, Hadeed to repeat the arguments he’s presented to committees twice before this month, O’Brien, in his debut before a legislative panel, to read a statement conveying the county commission’s opposition to the bill.
The House bill, HB425, has one more stop—before the Commerce Committee–before heading to the House floor. The Senate version, SB188, has two more committee stops: before the Community Affairs Committee, likely later this week or next week, then the Rules Committee. The bill may be killed at any one of those stops, though from the looks of the votes, that’s becoming increasingly unlikely.