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.