Vacation rentals have been in the news a lot lately. But not like this.
Vacation Rental Pros is one of the principal agencies in Flagler County and the region, offering short-term rentals: residential housing units or single-family homes rented for short periods, usually to vacationers who’d rather not stay in hotels. Vacation rentals are especially popular along the beach and in the Hammock. One of Vacation Rental Pros’ offices is at 5 Utility Drive in Palm Coast, off Old Kings Road.
Late Monday evening (Feb. 5) the agency rented Unit 835 at 900 Cinnamon Beach Way in the Hammock to a man, who carried out the registration online. (The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office is withholding his identity as the investigation is ongoing.) The office “had been trashed and keys from other rental properties were stolen,” according to a sheriff’s report.
Vacation Rental Pros tenants are usually given access to the office, an employee told deputies, and the man who’d made the late-night booking was believed to have been the last person there Monday night, apparently unsupervised.
The property inspector then went to the unit that had been rented on Cinnamon Beach Way the morning of Feb. 6. He knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again many times. No answer. He said the area “reeked” of marijuana and “found several people sleeping and would not respond to him.” He left and notified another Vacation Pros employee.
Both agency employees then told deputies the new tenant or tenants “were in violation of the rental agreement and they wanted them evicted.” The property manager asked a deputy to stand by as a matter of security.
“We rang the doorbell and knocked on the door multiple times before making entry,” the deputy reported in an incident report. No one was in. A note was left on the door advising the tenants they were in violation of the agreement and that they had to vacate the unit. But authorities did not go in. Just before 5 p.m., deputies were called again and informed that the credit card used for the transaction the night before to rent the unit on Cinnamon Beach Way turned out to have been stolen. So the actual identity of the person who rented the unit could not be provided to deputies just then.
The area manager for Vacation pros told deputies she took control of the property. Inside, according to the incident report, she “found most of the electronic devices were unplugged with the cords wrapped around them. She located three copy machines in the kitchen. She located a ten dollar bill that appeared to be counterfeit and a cell phone on the right night stand in the master bedroom. She believes they were going to print counterfeit money. Also found in the master bedroom [was] a small amount of a green leafy substance that appeared to be marijuana.”
In the master bathroom, there were pictures of the suspects: a white man and a white woman. The man was wearing a ball cap that matched a ball cap left on a lamp shade in the master bedroom. The inspector had located a leather satchel on the rear porch containing papers, cash (whether legitimate or counterfeit was not clear at the time) and a wallet.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office since December has been investigating several cases of counterfeit money being used at area businesses, the last instance in late January. No suspect has yet been arrested in those cases.
Vacation rental properties for their part have been at the center of a political struggle between interests looking to deregulate the industry and local governments, including Flagler County’s, looking to maintain certain local controls such as annual inspections and local contact points when issues arise. Since the county has been regulating the local industry, which includes some 120 regulated residential dwellings used as vacation rentals, county officials say there have been no complaints, and the units have had a safe record. The current case appears to be the first documented case in that time span that a vacation rental unit may have been used by its tenants for criminal activity.
Nevertheless, the case on Cinnamon Beach Way underscores the extent to which vacation rentals have been gaining popularity not just for their relative affordability, but for their lack of controls in units where there’s not so much as a front desk presence, thus opening the way for transient uses (and abuses) of properties that may have little to do with vacationing.