Short Term Rental Occupancy Leads Discussion
The Fort Myers Beach Town Council ran through a brief agenda at its Management & Planning Session before a handful of residents on Thursday morning, June 6. Council began its two-month summer break upon adjournment and will not convene again until its next regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, August 5.
Lieutenant Bryan Perera of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), who is new to the West District Headquarters, introduced himself to Council, before taking safety and security issue questions. “I have spent the past 15 years working on special units, like narcotics and with United States Marshals tracking fugitives, as well as on our SWAT Team and explosives unit. I recently worked the Special Detail that protected Vice President Mike Pence on his recent Southwest Florida visit, and did so when the Bush Family and President Barack Obama came in the past. I was born in Florida, am an old soul who carries a lot of traditional values, and bring a wealth of experience to the West District.” Perera explained that he is working with West District deputies so that they are aware of the town’s ordinances and have ready access to them during their 12-hour shifts.
Council member Rexann Hosafros said she would like “to dispel the rumor that once Spring Break ends, you disappear from the island.” “We keep two deputies on Fort Myers Beach at all times,” said the Lieutenant. “We often rotate in a third one, and frequently a supervisor works the beach as well, so that is a maximum of four deputies per shift. Other West District communities do not have as many deputies assigned to one specific area. We believe in a Community Policing-type of approach, and the key to that is in building relationships, so 95% of the time on the beach, you see the same faces.”
Council member Bruce Butcher said he wants additional LCSO assistance to keep electric bicycles off Fort Myers Beach sidewalks. “We will work hard to give Fort Myers Beach the image you want it to have, so have faith in us,” said Lieutenant Perera. “We will get better with these things as we progress, and will work very hard to not only enforce your Ordinances but to make this Town a better place.” Butcher asked if Fort Myers Beach should adopt an Ordinance against gasoline station pump skimmers, as many other local municipalities are doing, noting, “As a tourism destination, we have a transient population who might be easy targets for skimmers.” “Technology progresses so fast these days that things constantly change,” said the Lieutenant. “If you are looking into that, I would be glad to assist you in determining your best option.”
The Lee County Board of Commissioners approved a “Fuel Pump Security” ordinance in late May requiring all gas stations in unincorporated Lee County to put security measures in place by July 1, 2019 or face fines of up to $250 per pump, per day.
Mayor Anita Cereceda asked about a recent telephone scam seeking payments for supposed family members who are in danger. “This happened to a family member of mine earlier this week,” exclaimed Lieutenant Perera! “This scam continues to escalate, so let me emphasize that law enforcement nor any credible company will demand payment over the telephone without supporting documents. If something does not feel right to you, hang up and call the company back, and report it to us. Technology provides us with great advantages but also great disadvantages, so follow the good instincts that we all have.”
reFRESH Estero Boulevard
Rob Phelan, Lee County Project Manager for the reFRESH Estero Boulevard Projects, made a brief report on recent progress. “We are moving right along, especially on roadway paving and waterline installation. Primary Segment 2 construction that ends at Strandview Avenue will be complete in roughly one month, with work on combined Segments 3 & 4 well underway, so there is ongoing work in three of the Projects’ six miles.”
Hosafros stated that in the construction area with concrete lane dividers, the U-turn area near Newton Beach Park is so narrow, it requires backing up to make the U-turn. “That is dangerous; can you make that better?” “That continues to be an issue,” agreed Phelan. “I will talk to the crew about widening that.” Cereceda warned Phelan “that when Council returns from its summer break, be prepared to discuss trees, trees, landscaping, and trees!” Butcher once again asked about his oft-requested construction progress map so residents can easily track the projects’ work. “I have something in mind,” said Phelan, “and hope to have that for you when you return.” “If you need help,” joked Butcher, “I can bring my crayons!”
Family & Occupancy Loads
During a discussion about amending the Short Term Rental (STR) code, council considered eliminating the controversial phrase, “Single Family” as one of the STR criteria, and replacing it with an “Occupancy Load” for the maximum people per rental as determined by the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department.
“I’m kinda puzzled,” said Hosafros. “I know that this was discussed extensively when the recent changes were made; why didn’t you take it out then? My concern was that this would cause us to lose our ‘grandfathering’ and if that was the concern back then, then why isn’t it the concern now?”
Town Manager Roger Hernstadt agreed that it was a concern then. “The Town Attorney has reviewed the issue and advised us that this narrow change would not affect our grandfathering.”
When Hosafros again asked why it wasn’t removed then? Hernstadt explained that the Town Attorneys at that time did not make “an affirmative commitment” on the question, leading Hosafros to ask if council had received conflicting opinions on the issue.
Town Attorney John Herin, Jr., stated, “It’s not that there is differing opinions. No opinion was issued prior to that point in time.” He explained that he was tasked with finding a way to change the code to allow higher occupancy than “one single family.” Cereceda interjected that the question is much more complex than that.
Hosafros asked that the final ordinance specify that the council is seeking to eliminate any discriminatory aspect of the STR ordinance. Herin stated that as the ordinance stands now and with proposed modifications, “there is no discriminatory aspect of this ordinance.” Hosafros disagreed saying in her experience, “this kind of language was seen as discriminatory. I would like to see it gone; however, I have strong reservations about whether it might cause us to lose our grandfathering.”
Butcher stated that “when we did this the first time, we favored eliminating ‘Single Family.’” Shamp noted that “we did say at the time we would look into eliminating ‘Single Family,’ but most STRs are in Single Family neighborhoods, so we were in favor of keeping that to maintain the character of the neighborhoods.” Cereceda said, “Two single female roommates can occupy a single family home and there’s nothing prohibiting them from doing that.” Butcher agreed, saying “the ‘Single Family’ stipulation excludes 6 fishermen or 4 book buddies.” Shamp suggested changing the definition of ‘single family’ in the code, but make sure any changes won’t jeopardize the ordinance’s grandfathering.
Hosafros said she favors replacing “Single Family” with a Fire Dept. “Occupancy Load” “so we do not have conflicting numbers, to be fair to the community, so we should match what the Fire Dept. says.” “Let’s look at that and make sure that is good,” Shamp added, noting that at one point Council considered a limit of two people per bedroom plus an extra two people. Butcher opined, “I would vote for the Fire Department number.”
Cereceda expressed frustration: “We have tossed this around for years. What I would like is a definitive answer…as to whether or not we can eliminate the word ’family.’ Can we insert ‘occupancy load’ from the Fire Dept? I would agree with Bruce, I’d yank out ‘family’ and leave the Fire Dept number, but I don’t know if we can do that.”
Herin stated that, “I know you like short answers, so yes!” Herin explained that the information available now, including an Attorney General opinion, indicate that a municipality can change their STR regulations so long as those regulations do not become more restrictive.
The Town’s Local Planning Agency (LPA) discussed this two days earlier, and while unanimously agreeing to eliminate “Single Family,” they prefer an “Occupancy Load” along the lines of two people per bedroom, plus an extra two to four persons, that will most likely yield a significantly smaller figure than the Fire Department.
Under “Departmental Reports,” Hosafros congratulated staff on reducing the Permit process from roughly 12 down to 3 to 4 weeks. She, however, wants the Town to finally obtain a resolution to the on-going Right-of-Way parking dispute with a resident for the “Chapel Street Beach Permit,” noting “the Town spent a great deal of money litigating this and we won, so this makes no sense to me! I know this property owner gives the Town a lot of grief, and I don’t want to send the message that if you give us trouble, the Town backs off.” Cereceda and Shamp did not think it so easy, noting there is a potential conflict between that location being commercial or residential, and asked staff to bring them a definitive answer when they return from Summer Break.
Parking Rates & Realtor Workshop
Butcher wants the Town to re-examine its $3-per-hour parking rate increase that it implemented roughly one year ago, noting that “we raised the rate but have not taken in one dollar more, so the question is ‘are we alienating people and not gaining anything.’” He would also like to implement language to ensure that realtors include verbiage in their sales contracts so that people who purchase Fort Myers Beach homes know their correct rental zones, the 50% renovation regulations and other essential information. Vice Mayor Ray Murphy thought this idea excellent, and suggested that Council host a Workshop with realtors to discuss these topics.
Council will next meet on Monday, August 5, with Cereceda on an excused absence, with its next Management & Planning Session on Thursday, August 15. Council adjourned at 10:33 a.m.
By Gary Mooney