Fire District & Sheriff’s Office Address Forum
The Estero Island Taxpayers Association (EITA) hosted a public forum to discuss potential changes to the Town of Fort Myers Beach’s Short-term Rental Ordinance before roughly 20 people at the Fort Myers Beach Woman’s Club on Wednesday evening, October 24. Representatives from the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District and Lee County Sheriff’s Office made presentations and answered audience questions. The EITA invited the five members of Town Council and Town Manager Roger Hernstadt to attend, though none made an appearance.
EITA Executive Director Beverley Milligan began the session with a brief history of the Town’s Short-term Rental Ordinance that in 2003 set zones for weekly versus monthly rentals, along with a registry and fee. Only 60 rental properties originally registered, with that now down to 25. In 2011, the Florida Legislature passed Short-term Rental regulations that took precedence over local ordinances, but it did grandfather in existing policies. Should local jurisdictions amend these, she said, they risk voiding their grandfather exemptions, and the Town is now discussing such an action.
“These changes may turn as much as 50% of the homes on Fort Myers Beach into businesses,” explained Beverley, “and therein lies the problem, as this is an island-wide issue, with a big impact on our residents and community. This could turn island households into businesses that could include fire code updates and inspections as well as fees and – let’s face facts – generally speaking, fees do not go away or down, so that will economically impact a big part of the island. The EITA held an emergency meeting on August 28, where we had a full house, and the Town held an information session on September 27, and that brings us to tonight.”
Milligan explained the current EITA position on the proposed Short-term Rental Ordinance is the Town should enforce its 2003 policy, while taking at least one year for additional research, while property rights litigation from other jurisdictions plays out in court. During this cooling-off period, the EITA hopes the Town will open a dialog with residents, in a government-lite approach, to arrive at the best solution, without rushing into anything that will become a tax-grab or make the Town vulnerable to lawsuits.
“This will be on the Town’s Management & Planning Session on Thursday, November 9th, in Town Hall at 9 a.m.,” Milligan said, “but they do not take public comment, and in Town Council meetings, you have just three-minute comments with no Council response. Council members claim they receive many calls and complaints over Short-term Rentals, yet they do not make these numbers public, nor do they seek to solve these through the Lee County Sheriff’s Office or existing code enforcement.”
A New Level of Security
Executive Assistant Fire Chief Ron Martin spoke to the audience, stating that “in May 2015, Fort Myers Beach suffered its first life lost to fire in 35 years, in a blaze that killed a woman, while injuring two others in a two-family house. The Fire Control District realized we needed a new level of security to protect our residents. As on so many fronts, The Great Recession left its impact, as many people cannot afford their own place on the beach, so we live in a ‘Sharing Economy’ where folks vacation in Fort Myers Beach through renting. Many homeowners are absentee landlords who visit once or twice a year and rent their house the remainder of the time, meaning we have a lot of part-time residents.”
During the economic downturn, the State of Florida imposed budget cuts, including those that formerly inspected all units to remain in compliance with safety codes for smoke detectors and related items. “This eliminated inspections for rentals and vacation homes of two units or less,” explained Chief Martin, “leading the District to enact an Ordinance on March 1, 2016, requiring registration and periodic fire inspections of one and two-family homes. We have an older building stock, populated by older residents, so we give these vacation homes and long-term rentals a critical look.”
Chief Martin called the District Ordinance “a tremendous success, with a one-time registration fee of $25, with rental owners welcoming our routine inspections. We currently have 385 homes on our registry, with the District conducting roughly 200 inspections to date. We understand this is a growing industry, and we have no desire to tell you what you can do with your personal property; this is all about public safety in our community, to prevent a tragedy.”
You Call & We Respond
Captain Matt Powell spoke next, representing the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. “We do not legislate; you call and we respond — 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week, 365 days-a-year. If the Town wants to pass an ordinance, that is fine, but it has nothing to do with us. We want people to enjoy themselves and to come back to Fort Myers Beach, as tourism is good, and we understand that, but when you call us for help, we do not charge a fee or make you register; we just come out – it is pretty simple! This is a quality of life issue, and we are here to help you. We are a part of Fort Myers Beach, too, and are not here to harass you, but if we smell smoke, we go after the fire, and will help you anyway we can.”
He explained Noise Ordinances from Lee County and Fort Myers Beach “mirror each other, and are in effect from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. There are not really that many noise complaint calls on Fort Myers Beach, but when we receive one, we first issue a warning before we take any other action.”
Following these presentations, an audience member asked how the EITA should proceed with Short-term Rentals: “It seems like the Town is intent to push through Short-term Rentals by the end of this year,” replied Milligan. “The Town’s general attitude seems to be to go forward, while my sense from the EITA, almost to a person, is to slow down, to study whether this is worth doing and what are the economic impacts? If this happens a year from now, we will have way more answers to these and many more questions, about downsides and lawsuits and registration and code enforcement and property rights issues.
“Whether changes result in a weekly registry and or a black hole registry, a new Short-term Rental Ordinance will be a clear change. Let’s take our time to obtain solid answers about the implications of changing the regulations, as the public engagement piece to this issue seems to be missing. I think we are on the right track, and we encourage you to let Council know that you want an open and transparent discussion on such a big issue. Let’s stay informed and keep this discussion public, through Letters to the Editor and contact with Council through public engagement and open government, so let’s start with this issue and make it public!”
The next EITA meeting is Thursday, November 28, at the FMB Woman’s Club at 6:30 p.m., to discuss beach access, tourism, beach restrooms, island parking, a bed tax and Tourist Development Council applications.