In a long-running issue watched by communities and businesses across the state, and in Flagler County in particular, a Senate committee Monday approved a proposal that would take away power from cities and counties to regulate vacation rental properties. The 8-2 vote included Sen. Travis Hutson’s support. Hutson represents Flagler County.
The Senate Innovation, Industry and Technology Committee backed a bill (SB 1128), sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, that would “preempt” regulation of vacation rentals to the state. Lawmakers have attempted to pass a bill similar in one way or another to Diaz’s in each of the previous three legislative sessions, each time coming close but failing to cross final hurdles.
The Legislature in 2011 approved a bill that removed most local authority from regulating vacation rentals. That bill was intended to give a boost to homeowners whose mortgages were “under water” because of housing collapse, when vacation rentals were seen as a way to make money out of otherwise burdensome properties. That led to a small boom in vacation rentals, including in places such as the Hammock on Flagler’s barrier island.
Supporters of such preemption point, at least in part, to the property rights of people who decide to use platforms such as Airbnb to rent out homes or parts of homes. But critics contend that such rentals, in many cases, have turned into commercial operations in residential areas. Established residents in the Hammock formed opposition groups to vacation rental properties, lobbying the county commission and state lawmakers to restore local regulatory authority. The Flagler County Commission and local residents made their case to then freshman Rep. Travis Hutson and Sen. John Thrasher (who has since taken the presidency of Florida State University). Trasher successfully passed a bill in 2014 restoring at least some local authority while preserving property owners’ rights to rent. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly had Rep. Paul Renner rather than Thrasher in the mix; Renner had not yet been elected.)
The county wrote new rules. A vacation rental company sued the county but the rules were largely upheld in circuit court, and Flagler’s ordinance, the work of County Attorney Al Hadeed, became a model for such ordinances across the state, But the short-term rental industry kept up the pressure on lawmakers, year after year returning to Tallahassee to get the 2014 law repealed, and a new law favoring vacation rentals enacted.
Monday’s committee meeting, which came a day before the start of the annual legislative session, gave a glimpse of the lobbying on each side of the issue. Supporters included companies and groups such as Airbnb, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and property managers, while opponents included numerous local governments, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“I can’t remember a bill in a while that’s taken up as much attention in my district,” Sen. Gary M. Farmer Jr., the Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said. He had questions about inspections, and how the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which would be responsible for inspections, “if we’re taking away any inspection or local rights from local governments. Six people at a cost of $440,000 to police the whole state. I think we need to explore that a little bit more, and I think some good points were made between homestead properties and corporately-held properties.”
The cast of characters was almost identical to previous such casts in previous years, though representation from Flagler was conspicuously absent, as it was last year: preserving local regulatory authority is still a priority for county government, but if in previous years county commissioners, Hadeed and the county administrator made frequent trips to the state capital to fight their side of the battle, that tactic has been abandoned. The county has a lobbyist in Tallahassee. (The commission chose to remove Hadeed from legislative initiatives.)
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who is a member of the committee, said she thinks the state needs uniform regulations for vacation-rental properties, but she also said the bill has a “long way to go” in addressing concerns. “We can’t just preempt,” Passidomo said. “We have to preempt and set rules.” Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, has filed a House version of the bill (HB 1011).
–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida