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Conflict Over Hammock Vacation Rentals Dominates Legislative Meeting, To Little End

| December 11, 2012

Travis Hutson, left, and John Thrasher, now the sum total of Flagler County's legislative delegation, listened to almost two hours of direct lobbying and appeal from local leaders and residents, but distanced themselves from the evening's most contentious issue: vacation rentals. (© FlaglerLive)

Travis Hutson, left, and John Thrasher, now the sum total of Flagler County’s legislative delegation, listened to almost two hours of direct lobbying and appeal from local leaders and residents, but distanced themselves from the evening’s most contentious issue: vacation rentals. (© FlaglerLive)

The annual exercise known as the legislative delegation meeting—when Flagler County residents and politicians get to publicly lobby their state lawmakers one-on-one—could be summed up in two words: vacation rentals.

It’s usually the sort of issue that heats up city or county government, not legislative, meetings. But in 2011, the Florida Legislature, ostensibly stocked with small-government Republicans who claim not to meddle in business or local governments’ affairs, passed a bill that forbids local governments from regulating short term or vacation rentals, let alone ban them. Among the prohibitions: no county or city may impose occupancy restrictions on vacation rentals. So even a single-family house could be termed a “resort dwelling” if it’s rented more than three times a year. That house could be filled with many more than one family at a time, a contradiction with common local zoning regulations that the state law does not resolve. Conflict was inevitable.

In Flagler County, the conflict has exploded in the Hammock, where many homeowners who bought their houses for enormous sums during the housing bubble found themselves facing a stark choice: lose the house, declare bankruptcy, or turn the property into a short-term rental. Many did just that.

It’s been a boon for some, among them Steve Milo, owner of Vacation Rental Pros, a Jacksonville-registered company (Milo lists his address as Atlantic Beach). It’s been a horror for Steve Kopec, an eight-year resident of Ocean Oaks Lane, where he describes the last year as “a living hell because of the vacation rental that is next door to me.”

Almost two dozen people spoke on the issue at the two-hour legislative-delegation meeting in Bunnell Tuesday evening. Milo and Kopec summed up the essence of the conflict most compellingly: Milo spoke of the jobs his company created (55, not counting contractors), helping many people in a county riddled with unemployment find livelihoods, while pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy in the form of bed taxes and sales taxes. The Hammock home owners’ association voted to keep vacation rentals, he said. He claims that 30,000 guests have stayed in his rentals. “They pump money into the local economy, businesses, some bought homes,” he said. A long train of people who addressed the legislative delegation were Milo’s employees and contractors who lavished his business with praise and appreciation. Milo is no stranger to the fight: he won a $300,000 settlement from the city of Venice several years ago, where he had a similar business the city wanted to shut down

Kopec personalized the matter, describing how his “blissful retirement” was ruined in the past year: “Vacationers urinating on my yard, stealing fruit from my trees, throwing trash in my yard, and parking on my yard, and partying till all hours of the night.” He asked for the law to be reconsidered, though it wasn’t clear whether he wanted the law repealed or better regulations enforced (the option several other Hammock residents proposed). “Don’t sacrifice peace and enjoyment for monetary reward,” Kopec continued. “We had someone buy the house next door in a short sale. That wasn’t an attempt to save a mortgage on their part by somebody under water.” Rather, the house was converted into a short-term rental, with no attention to safety or other matters of concern to neighbors.

Kopec’s neighbor in question, Mark Voss, sued Kopec in July for harassment, because Kopec was calling the police so frequently to complain. The case is pending in circuit court, with a hearing scheduled on Jan. 28. (Voss’s attorney, Lindsey Brock, is also Milo’s. He spoke in defense of Milo Tuesday evening.)

It’s been that sort of conflict, and the legislative delegation got a taste of it tonight. Some speakers went as far as leveling a few bigoted invectives at short-termers, as did Jeff Southmayd, a 61-year-old resident of Ocean Ridge Boulevard and owner of a Christian radio station who nevertheless didn’t hesitate to blame “this cancer” of short-term rentals on “Yankees and people who live outside of here.” When another speaker attacked Milo’s business practices, Sen. John Thrasher, the head of the legislative delegation, felt compelled to intervene. “I’m not interested in personalities or attacks on different people back and forth from either side,” Thrasher said. “I want to know about the legislative issues.”

Thrasher was half the delegation. The other half was Travis Hutson, the freshman house member. Both are Republicans, and for the first time in almost two generations, the core of their district is Flagler County, though it also includes portions of St. Johns and Volusia, and for Thrasher, portions of Putnam as well. Hutson, in his first delegation meeting in Flagler, took notes, at times assiduously, and in contrast with either Thrasher or his predecessors, who would generally listen, uttered polite words or flatter the audience, then end the meeting, aware that very little of what was said would translate into legislative results.

Thrasher cut to the chase in the vacation rental matter. He asked Kopec to leave his address, suggesting that he might want to visit the property. He said he’d be willing to visit with supporters of short rentals, too. But if either side had its hopes raised by the senator’s overtures, they were dashed at the end of the meeting, when his prescription was not quite what either side wanted to hear.

“If I had you in Tallahassee, doing this, and you were there today,” he told both sides’ partisans, “I’d have you in my office and we’d sit down and work something out. And I want to tell you something: there are some very, very bright, intelligent people who testified here tonight. And finally ladies and gentlemen, I would love to see you all try to work this out. Try to find common ground.” He said the Legislature should not revisit the matter “because you don’t know what would happen.” He did not tell them, either, that he had voted for the bill, as had all his Senate colleagues: it passed unanimously (and by a 94-19 vote ion the House), suggesting that members’ desire to bring it back up is unlikely.

Aside from the rentals, the meeting had featured leaders of various local government and non-profits. Nate McLaughlin, the county commission chairman, spoke of the county’s opposition to any move by the state that would devolve more state prisoners to county jails (as might happen, in a cost-saving measure for the state, but a costly burden on local governments). Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts urged action on synthetic marijuana and its likes, and, repeating what he’d urged last year, state-wide regulation of internet cafes. Most government leaders asked for an end to the exemption from sales taxes that travel companies enjoy (though again, Thrasher opposes taxing them).

Chet Bell, who heads Stewart-Marchman Act Behavioral Health Care, lent credence to Netts’ concern about synthetic drugs, saying treatment for their abuse has vaulted the matter into second place, just behind alcohol, and ahead of prescription drugs. Bell also urged the renewal of a three-year grant that has enabled local counselors and social workers to keep certain people with mental health issues from going to jail when they commit certain offenses. It’s an effective diversionary program, but it’s ending this year absent new money.

School Board member Colleen Conklin and Deputy Superintendent Jacob Oliva asked the lawmakers to rethink the state’s method of imposing high-stakes tests up to eight weeks before the end of courses on which students are being tested. They recommended that the school calendar or the school day be lengthened to better allow students to prepare for tougher academic standards the district and Florida are developing. They asked for a more realistic approach to evaluating teachers, rather than an incomprehensible evaluation formula that Conklin brought, printed on an 8-by-11 sheet of paper (it’s that complicated). And they reminded Thrasher and Hutson that public schools have been cut off from construction money, now that the Legislature is diverting capital funds to charter schools.

A representative from the local tea party, Gail St. Pierre, entertained the crowd with the usual but outlandishly invented conspiracy theories about “Agenda 21” (portrayed by a fringe as the United Nations’ plan to take over the world by way of bike paths and similar means of sustainable or smart development).

The outlandish wasn’t limited to speakers from the fringe: Thrasher, too, had his moments. He started the meeting with an outright Christian prayer, a common occurrence in local governments where respect for either the Constitution or believers of alternate religions is not usually a concern. He ended it with a tall tale about Thomas Jefferson, when he managed to claim that the founder himself—as close to an atheist as the White House ever sheltered—would have urged prayer at a moment like now, with the nation facing that “fiscal cliff.”

Thrasher was preparing to outline the major issues facing the Legislature come spring: the consequences of the “fiscal cliff,” whichever way those go, Medicaid funding, gaming, the Florida Supreme Court’s impending decision on the legality of the state skimming 3 percent in pension contributions from state workers’ paychecks, gambling, and a few other issues. But it was the fiscal cliff that had him “prayerful” for a solution, and got him going on Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House), a new book he was reading by John Meacham.

“There was a series of really tough issues that were coming down from the British crown,” Thrasher said, “and Thomas Jefferson decided that one of the things that, rather than fight, at that time anyway, and try to do something outlandish, that he would ask the colonial Americans to pray. And I frankly tell you, I think this is a time for prayer for our country. I really do, for this is a serious issue.”

Thrasher, who was essentially conflating the American Revolution with the fiscal cliff, either expediently but inaccurately manipulated Meacham’s account to his ends, or misread it. The senator was referring to the Day of Fasting and Prayer Resolution of May 24, 1774, a clever initiative that drew on Jefferson’s pragmatic wiles at a key moment in the run-up to the American Revolution, but in no way suggested that Jefferson was a believer, let alone a believer in prayer. Meacham in his book specifies what Thrasher did not: “For Jefferson, the decision to base a revolutionary appeal on religious grounds was expedient, reflecting more an understanding of politics than a belief that the Lord God of Hosts was about to intervene in British America.”

Expediency, of course, is the art of any long-lasting political power. Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House, has been in the Legislature since 1992.

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6 Responses for “Conflict Over Hammock Vacation Rentals Dominates Legislative Meeting, To Little End”

  1. Kyle says:

    Yup, a nice prayer is exactly what this country needs. I hope god favors the USA and Christianity otherwise you might go as far as to say that the prayer was in vain and he should actually do some real work on the situation. Now that would be a real miracle.

  2. Mind your own business and not your neighbors says:

    We don’t need more regulations and no one should have control over who is in our home or how many people are in our home! Put a privacy fence around your property and shut your shades so you don’t have to make your neighbors business your business. I’m thankful the properties aren’t vacant and revenue is being brought into our county. It is so sad that more real issues that impact more than a handful of select individuals in a gated community went unaddressed tonight.

  3. BobbySue says:

    Legislators my BUTT. All they do is BS the home owner. We know their getting some ‘payolee” from the rental properties. Either have the GUTS or KOHUNA’S to actually commit to the problem or get the hell out of government. Worthless government bureaucrats . I suggest the home with all the problems put up an electric fence, spy camera’s and big dogs. Then purchase a shotgun and the next time them ” Yankees” pee on your lawn….Lightem up !!!!!

  4. BW says:

    I can see issues on both sides. You have people that have invested millions of dollars into many of those homes (and a lot of it cash too). And I have seen situations with multiple families renting a large home and showing up like it’s a hotel. It really isn’t fair to the residents.

    On the flipside of things short-term rentals do help the local economy. Florida is a tourist state and we are perfectly situated for tourism. But their can be common ground. Better scrutiny and rules for those agreeing to rent could help.

    In regards to prayer and the constitution, it really is a silly argument. The very right protected under the constitution to voice your opinion against prayer is the same exact right protecting the right to pray. It is not declaring a national religion because one exercises their freedom of religion which is something many parts of the world do not enjoy.

  5. Alex says:

    This laws has the potential to create slums.

  6. Ron Boyce says:

    Here is the real issue. Florida house bill 883 restricts local goverment from mandating them to register with the county. The county is prevented from inspecting these dwellings for building code violations and fire code violations prior to being occupied by renters. These inspections are necessary. Has there been illegal conversions of garages and storage rooms. Do these dwellings have a secondary means of egress to provide safety for the occupants? Are there extinguishers in place, have they been recharge, are they the proper type and are they located properly. Are the smoke detectors working? The Florida rule for occupancy requirements are flawed. They adopted 150 gross square foot per persons. But they never addressed rooms used for sleeping purposes. The federal HUD rule states 150 square foot of area for one person and then further states rooms used for sleeping purposes must have 70 square feet of area for one person and 50 additional square feet of floor area for each additional person. The big question how many people can you accomodate in a 10 x 12 bedroom ? This bill needs to be modified. All local governments must have the ability to regulate these dwellings. It is not if it’s going to happen, it’s when. These vacation homes are a serious life hazard. All these homes should be re inspected annually.

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