The annual legislative delegation meeting in Flagler County drew more than a full house Wednesday evening in Bunnell as the same issue that dominated last year’s meeting—vacation rentals in the Hammock—again dominated half the two-hour session. Red-shirted opponents of a two-year-old law that vastly opened the door to vacation rentals occupied well over half the seats in the meeting chamber, though proponents of the law were represented as well.
Rep. Travis Hutson and Sen. John Thrasher, whose districts include all of Flagler County, make their annual stop here in early fall to formally hear the concerns and priorities of local governments, agencies, businesses and residents. The legislative session doesn’t start until spring. But numerous legislative committee meetings pave the way, as does the filing of bills that will largely set the session’s direction.
Unlike previous such meetings, when legislators focus on listening rather than on making promises, Thrasher and Hutson this time made news: they pledged to the sea of red-shirted partisans that they will each file a bill in their respective chamber to repeal the 2011 law and return the matter of vacation rental regulations to local governments.
“I’m a big property rights person as much as anybody,” Thrasher said, addressing the many homeowners the 2011 law was intended to help by enabling them to rent their homes rather than lose the properties for being unable to meet mortgage payments. “But individual property rights have to be balanced and I’m of the opinion that we’re not going to be able to work it out here.” When he heard the concerns of residents and vacation renters last year, Thrasher proposed that the two sides work things out among themselves before taking it up with lawmakers. They didn’t. “I intend to file a piece of legislation that will repeal this law.”
Hutson said he’d file a companion bill in the House. But both lawmakers warned the audience that there are no guarantees the proposal will get very far, considering that there may be up to 1 million vacation properties in the state. The industry can lobby legislators convincingly, and some of those industry representatives were in the audience this afternoon, speaking of their business as job-creating and as a boon to tourism, the principal force in Florida’s economy. Property owners, too, spoke to the legislators from the perspective of individuals who have the right to do with their homes what their deed allows them to do—to rent them.
But residents made similar arguments, citing their own rights as property owners to live quietly.
“Single-family residences have been converted into mini-hotels,” Paul Pershes, who heads the Ocean Hammock Property Owners Association, said. “The state law that was put into place is hurting us dramatically.”
Steve Milo, who runs Vacation Rental Pros, described the business as vital to the local economy and described himself as a job creator who spoke on behalf of owners’ property rights. Some 43,000 vacation renters stayed in Flagler County in one calendar year, according to another supporter of the law. Unlike last year, when Milo trooped his own employees before the delegation to speak on behalf of the law, none of his employees spoke, and he said the numerous homeowners who benefit from the law could not attend since they live out of the county.
And so it went for almost an hour (the second hour of the two-hour meeting) as proponents and opponents of the new law dueled in words and pleas, the chamber erupting in applause every time opponents of the law spoke, and did so especially when Thrasher promised to file the repeal bill.
Thrasher had nothing to lose: if it passes, he’s a hero, unlikely to be punished politically since the majority of those who benefit from vacation rentals are visitors who don’t vote. If the bill doesn’t pass, he’s done his best and at least appeared responsive.
“I really think the Florida legislature made a mistake when we passed this law. We should be deferring to the local folks,” Thrasher said. “There’s a balance in property rights and I’m of the opinion that this needs to come back and be decided at the local level.”
When the bill passed in 2011, it did so with overwhelming margins: 94-19 in the House, 38-0 in the Senate (with Thrasher voting for it).
The bill reclassifies resort condominiums and resort dwellings as “vacation rentals,” and it pre-empted local government regulations of such rentals, with some exceptions. (See a complete legislative analysis of the bill here.)
The first hour was considerably duller, even for the speakers: many of them zipped out of the room as soon as they were done.
The meeting always follows the same pattern, with local governments going first—the county, Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, Bunnell and the school board, then other government or social service agencies and private concerns. None of the local constitutional officers spoke. (Bunnell was a no-show: Judi Stetson, the city’s grants director, was scheduled to speak, but did not appear, and Lawrence Williams, the new city manager, opted not to fill in, though he was in the audience.) Nate McLaughlin, chairman of the county commission, pressed for more state support for the Agricultural Museum that the county just took over again (from Palm Coast), describing it as one of the county’s economic development priorities. Curiously, McLaughlin made no mention of another legislative priority the county commission approved: to push for the repeal of the right of local voters to decide by referendum every 10 years whether the county may have the authority to give tax breaks to new companies.
Jon Netts, Palm Coast’s mayor, asked for $375,000 from the state to help the city comply with water-treatment regulations (the city was found to be in non-compliance with federal standards in one regard, and faces a steep bill as it carries out the needed upgrades).
Netts also asked, as he did last year, for more clarity on the state’s law restricting so-called Internet cafes. Thrasher sponsored the law that essentially banned the cafes earlier this year. But owners of such businesses are increasingly exploiting loopholes to open gambling halls under new guises. “We may have to go back and revisit that, as we may have to revisit a number of things related to gaming,” Thrasher said. “I still think they’re probably gambling devices.”
Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman Steve Settle asked for more state advocacy on behalf of the city’s shoreline projection-and a 25 percent financial commitment to an Army Corps of Engineers study on the matter. And he asked for the state’s support in changing the Gamble Rogers Recreation Area back to its original name: Flagler Beach Recreational Area.
Andy Dance, chairman of the school board, made his appearance with Superintendent Janet Valentine and let the delegation know that this would be Valentine’s last meeting: she is retiring in June. Dance focused on intricate matters of performance pay and the ever-stingier ways in which the state funds local districts, or asks them to pick up new tabs—as with students dually enrolled in a local community college while still attending high school. The state now expects districts to pay part of that college cost.
Inevitably, there was a question—not from Dance, but from Dave Sullivan, the chairman of the local Republican Executive Committee—about common core. Sullivan wasn’t taking a position on the matter but merely inquiring about the state’s, and the legislators’ direction.
“Common core standards are standards, while there’s some disagreement despite about what they are and where they came from, they’re standards,” Thrasher said. The curriculums are developed by local school districts, he said to a few heads shaking in the audience.
But Thrasher is correct: the curriculums are developed locally, though common core opponents have routinely mis-characterized the matter by claiming, falsely, that curriculums are imposed on local districts. There is a bill that would suspend the implementation of common core, though it’s been implemented already in the early grades. “My personal belief is, you’ve got to have standards, you’ve got to have something that’s achievable for children to rise to in order to succeed in this world,” Thrasher said. Hutson said he “echoed” the same thoughts.
Sullivan raised a question to Hutson and Thrasher that had never been raised before: he asked them to be more forthcoming about the way they set their own priorities after hearing constituents from their counties (Hutson has three counties, Thrasher four), and to essentially provide a scoresheet of previous years’ priorities—whether they were taken up, whether they resulted in anything substantial or were rolled over into the current year’s list.
Numerous other community members and leaders spoke, including Ken Mattison, the new CEO at Florida Hospital Flagler, who urged the delegation to press for an expansion of Medicaid, with federal dollars–an expansion under Obamacare that Gov. Rick Scott belatedly supported earlier this year, but that the Legislature rejected, resulting in a lack of insurance for at least 1 million Floridians despite Obamacare.
Mattison was not around when a local resident appeared before the legislator to ask that the hospital’s religious tax exemption be withdrawn, as that resident claimed the non-profit hospital should not have the benefits of a church, a mosque or a synagogue. Among other speakers: Chet Bell, the CEO of Stewart-Marchman Act Behavioral Healthcare, and Mary Ann Clark, who this evening spoke not as the president of the Flagler County Historical Society, but as a proponent of passing the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1979, the amendment fell three states short of the 38 required for it to become part of the U.S. Constitution. Florida was among the states that did not ratify.