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More than 100 Palm Coast residents opposed to HB 425 filled the Hammock Community Center on a Saturday night for a Town Hall meeting.
Jax Daily Record Friday, Mar. 31, 201712:00 PM EST

Vacation rental battle: Home rule should prevail

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by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Florida’s coastal civil war.

Cities against the State. Local commissioners against state legislators. Homesteaders against tourists. Neighbors against neighbors, or, shall we say full-time homeowners against vacation-rental homeowners, investors and big business.

More than 100 residents came ready to fight Saturday night — Saturday night, mind you! — over in Palm Coast. At a town hall meeting, residents  unleashed their opposition to short-term vacation rentals on state Rep. Paul Renner.

Down in Miami Beach 10 days ago, the other side came out. While Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado held a press conference at Miami City Hall highlighting negative impacts short-term rentals are having on neighborhoods and constant complaints they’re receiving about Airbnb users, two dozen Airbnb hosts carried signs reading, “These mayors are Innsane.”

Then, at 8 a.m. Tuesday in Tallahassee, both sides came face to face and unloaded on state lawmakers over House Bill 425, one of two bills this legislative session that has escalated this fight. The other is Sarasota Sen. Greg Steube’s Senate Bill 188.

The battle lines are clear:

• The homesteaders and city and county commissioners are fighting for the authority to govern and regulate the use of residential property in their communities — home rule.

• On the other side, Airbnb, VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner), vacation-rental owners, Steube and Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, are fighting to keep local governments from regulating the vacation-rental business and for those residential property owners to have the freedom to do what they want with their properties — make money.

At Tuesday’s House hearing in Tallahassee, lawmakers listened to passionate pleas for 45 minutes from both sides. The subcommittee considering HB 425 ultimately voted in favor of the bill and against home rule advocates.

Meantime, as each day goes by, Home Rule Florida, an organization birthed in Anna Maria,  is receiving reports from around the state from homesteaders expressing their dismay at what’s happening to their neighborhoods. Here’s one from William Teat in Fort Lauderdale:

“Just last year, we had homes in our subdivision rented to people who used the rental to throw large all-night parties. These people were charging for entry, and were attracting not the best elements to our quiet neighborhood.”

George Pezoulas of Palm Coast sent this to state senators: “… We have one of these rentals across the street … After we moved down and into our home, within the first week we could hear what was the beginning of a long season of cars, endless noise when they were in the pool and an endless stream of renters walking out of the front door. Our neighbor to the right side of them had to finally sell his house and move…”

And tell me this doesn’t make you take notice: On Anna Maria, an  eight-bedroom home is advertised that it “comfortably sleeps 28.” How would you like that next door to your two-bedroom beach bungalow?

On the other side of the battle line, of course, are the defenders of freedom and property rights (their right to benefit from what they own). Last week, in our sister paper, the Business Observer, Adrian Moore, vice president at the free-market think tank of Reason Foundation, asked: What’s the problem? He says he lives happily and peacefully on a Siesta Key street whose homes are almost entirely vacation rentals.

Moore argues against the state giving cities and counties home-rule regulatory powers over vacation rentals. “We have an extensive body of nuisance and other laws designed to prevent one homeowner from imposing harms on others via noise, smells, parking, trash, what have you,” he writes. “After all, we all have family and friends who visit us, staying for various lengths of time. Some people have lots of family and friends who stay with them … How is that different from vacation renters? Why not let homeowners use their homes as assets however they like?”

To that point, of protecting property rights and the free use of their properties, over the past two years, vacation-rental homeowners have filed 80 lawsuits against the town of Anna Maria, with claims totaling more than $30 million. These property owners say Anna Maria’s 2015 ordinance regulating vacation rentals with myriad rules and requirements, including occupancy limits, has diminished the value of their properties. Invoking Florida’s 1995 Bert Harris Act, they want to be compensated.

In Miami, Mayors Levine and Regalado heard vigorous protests from Airbnb hosts who said they wouldn’t be able to afford the payments on their homes without the income from their overnight renters.

And Sen. Steube argues that unless local governments are prohibited from enacting regulations on short-term vacation rentals, which his bill would do, local governments will go overboard and seriously diminish an important source of Florida’s biggest industry and deny property owners “the right to own and enjoy” their property.

To be sure, this is a difficult dilemma for all of Florida. Both sides have valid arguments.

The fundamental principles of “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness” for centuries have carried the idea that your property is yours. And you have the right to benefit from what you own — be it from your own effort and talents, from the crops you grow or from providing shelter to a vacationer — as long as you don’t harm your neighbor.

As Steube and La Rosa see it: Less regulation and more freedom are far better than onerous local regulations designed essentially to confiscate the use as you see fit.

But flip the coin. At the same time, vacation rentals are a business; Airbnb hosts are part of a business enterprise — both operating in residential neighborhoods. Why should they be exempt from the rules, regulations and taxes that are imposed, say, on six-unit vacation resorts and other local businesses?

Talk to the general manager of Casa del Mar resort on Longboat Key, and he’ll likely bristle that his resort is required to collect bed taxes from weekly vacationers while the “under-the-table” weekly renters at the condo down the street pay no business taxes.

What’s more, most local governments indeed have had the long-standing right to create zoning classifications for compatible property use. What, then, is the justification for the state to “preempt” home rule on this one classification of property use?

Here’s a kicker: If you gave citizens a vote on which level of government is best for decision making at the local level, it’s a safe bet that nearly 100 percent would say government closest to the people is best; the state should refrain from meddling in local affairs.

Think of it this way: State lawmakers and governors always chafe at the federal government telling them what to do. They invoke what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they created the United States: That whatever powers were not enumerated in the Constitution were left to the states. The states were viewed as laboratories of democracy where people had the freedom to try different ways to address their unique challenges.

So it is with local government. We all have learned that whenever government imposes a  one-size-fits-all regulation the ill-effects are worse than the benefits. Innovation is stifled.

Let the marketplace at the local level address short-term, vacation-rental homes. Let home rule prevail.

American ingenuity is remarkable at responding to the market’s needs and desires. And the marketplace is remarkable at finding equilibrium. Excesses never last. Indeed, we all have seen how too much regulation is destructive. In this instance, the Burt Harris Act counterbalances. And we all have seen how an oversupply of product and bad behavior is destructive of value as well.

Eventually, the market corrects; rational minds reach a balance. But that takes work, experimenting and making a persuasive case to find that balance.

If Sen. Steube and Rep. La Rosa learn anything about this volatile subject affecting all of Florida’s coastal communities, they might see a few word changes in state statutes aren’t going to settle this dispute.

This challenge should be settled at the local level. Not in Tallahassee.

Matt Walsh is publisher of the Daily Record and CEO of Observer Media Group Inc. [email protected].

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