An attempt yet again to redraw the rules of vacation-rental properties across the state got its first hearing in a Senate committee this morning. It did not go Flagler County government’s way: a bill almost eliminating local government authority to regulate all vacation rentals cleared a Senate committee this morning. But there’s a very long and tortuous way to go.
“Wherever all this goes, we’ve got a series of issues here either way that we know there’s got to be a lot of work done to try to get some closure,” Committee Chairman Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, said.
The issue is a top priority for the county, whose 2014 ordinance regulating a fifth of the county’s vacation rentals quickly became a template for scores like it across the state, but also spurred the vacation-rental industry to seek to rein in local regulation, reserving it (or pre-empting it) for the state, whose regulatory hand is much lighter. The battle has been pitting local governments against the industry, with each side claiming to speak for the property rights of homeowners. The Legislature came close to rewriting the rules last year but fell short by session’s end, knowing the issue would return this session.
It has, with vastly differing bills about to go through the usual gauntlet of a half dozen committees in the House and Senate presumably before reaching each chamber’s floor, where further amendments are possible.
Today two bills went before the Senate Community Affairs Committee, one by Sen. Greg Steube (SB1400), one by David Simmons (SB 1640). The committee combined them into one, only to have that one bill become subject of competing amendments by the same authors of the two separate bills.
So it came down to this. Steube’s version would return the law to 2011, when the state pre-empted all regulations to the Division of Hotels and Restaurants within the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The division would license and conduct inspections and investigate complaints, and audit about 1 percent of vacation-rental concerns a year, randomly. A single licensed operator could operate 1,000 rentals across the state: licenses are not geographically bound. Local governments could regulate, but no differently than they could regular single-family homes—which is to say, local regulation would be almost impossible as a practical matter.
Simmons’s version maintains statewide licensing and pre-empts regulations to the state. But while Steube’s version calls for total pre-emption, including for building codes and fire safety, Simmons’s does not, leaving those matters to local governments because he doesn’t think the lodging division could adequately regulate those. His version would also allow local governments to require a local certificate to keep tabs on the locations of vacation rentals and their owners. Further, Simmons would opens the way for local regulation of single-family homes that are not owner-occupied. That carves out a difference between the sort of Airbnb homes whose owners rent portions to vacationers, which would not be subject to local regulation—and have not been an issue with local governments—and those homes that are entirely used for vacation rentals and rented out either by absentee owners or by rental companies, which have created issues for neighbors and local governments.
Two camps quickly formed: the vacation-rental industry on Steube’s side, local governments and the hotel industry—which sees vacation rentals as a threat to its business model—on Simmons’s side.
“Yes, people who rent these homes have property rights, but so do the people who live next-door to them.”
“I don’t think any legislation is required,” Eric Poole of the Florida Association of Counties told the committee, summing up the recent history of the debate. “I think Flagler County’s administrator, Craig Coffey, explained how that county right now regulates about 20 percent of the vacation rentals there. They painstakingly went through a process to involve property owners to make sure a balance was developed. I think it’s important to highlight that in 2011 the vacation industry got a very big win, it said we couldn’t prohibit vacation rentals, says we couldn’t regulate, we couldn’t address duration and frequency, and the Legislature in 2014 recognized it went a little too far, and then Sen. Thrasher and your colleague, Sen. Hutson, who was in the House at the time, addressed and made a very minor tweak that would allow local governments to have some partial regulation. So I think that was a very good balance.”
But opponents of that view see the balance in Steube’s version.
“This all started because of the morass of local ordinances that have been adopted since 2014, that have caused significant unpredictability around the state,” said Lori Killinger, who represents the Florida Vacation Rental Management Association, “and dare I say that a lot of those ordinances, the purposes are frankly to not be complied with. So Sen. Steube’s bill and amendment in a way hits a reset button, clears the deck a bit, and puts back, for the first time, clear, appropriate, predictable regulation both at the state level and the local level. The state level will have licensing, will have inspections. At the local level they will be free to address all the good-neighbor problems they are having to ensure the quality of their neighborhoods are maintained, because what you really have bad actors. Vacation rentals are not innately bad. People can be difficult sometimes. Noise, parking, trash etc. can be regulated at will under the pre-emption that is in Sen. Steube’s bill.”
Killinger, like Steube and his supporters, opposes grandfathering closes for fear that those would encrust a mosaic of existing laws, thus preserving the sort of confusion Killinger says the industry is battling.
So it went. A representative of Miami Dade County, which passed a vacation-rental ordinance last year, said Steube’s version would “swing the pendulum a bit too far away from that balance.” A Holmes Beach official pointed out a key wrinkle in Steube’s version that got no debate during today’s hearing: it creates a property right for a single-family residential property owner to have a vacation rental. “We think that’s entirely inappropriate,” the Holmes Beach official said, “it’s against the zoning requirements the Legislature has required of local governments for 40, 50 years. We would really ask for that to come out.” It did not.
Gary Bruhn, president of the Florida League of Mayors, said “people who rent these homes have property rights, but so do the people who live next-door to them.” And Casey Cook of the Florida League of Cities said that “at its core, we think that this is a zoning issue and zoning is in place to balance all property rights, not to give one specific property an advantage over another.”
In the end, Simmons was compelled to withdraw his version in a tactical move, after Steube’s cleared the committee. He did so at Lee’s urging (even though Lee sided with Steube) in order that the Simmons proposal get another hearing further down the line.
“Neither side is happy with the Simmons amendment or the Steube amendment, they’re both a work in progress,” Lee said. “There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for continued input.”