In response to the recent Town of Fort Myers Beach Council Management & Planning Session that addressed a proposed short-term rental ordinance on August 24, the Estero Island Taxpayers Association (EITA) hosted a meeting on Monday, August 28, when roughly 45 people jammed the Junkanoo meeting room. The new ordinance would amend occupancy limits and require annual registration of short-term rental units, allowing a maximum occupancy of 2 persons per bedroom plus 2 additional people.
“The stakeholders are right here in this room,” said Beverley Milligan, EITA Executive Director and co-owner of the Myerside Resort. “We are not just a few people or a specific group but we are all the taxpayers, and we want to show Council there are many stakeholders on all parts of the island. It says a lot that short-term rentals are important enough that we filled this room in such a short period of time.”
Joining Milligan in leading the session were Judith Lee of Sun Place Vacations and Amy Loughrey of Distinctive Beach Rentals. “I have been fighting this since 2004,” said Lee, “when they tried to jam these unpleasant things down our throats by the Local Planning Agency and Council. This is getting a lot of attention, not just on Fort Myers Beach but statewide and in other states.”
Milligan outlined a brief history of Fort Myers Beach short-term rental ordinances, including “grandfathered” neighborhood and rental regulations in place prior to 2003. “Our goals for this meeting,” she continued, “is to agree to support two policies: to slow this process down and take our time to acquire enough information to make a good decision, and while we do that, the Town should enforce the short-term rental regulations already on the books. If the Town restricts our property rights, that alone is grounds for a lawsuit. We already have to register rentals with two other levels of government; we don’t need a third – no way!”
In referring to the upcoming Town-sponsored question & answer information session on Wednesday evening, September 27, Milligan said “We need way more time – let’s not just have this meeting, then have the Town jam this ordinance down our throat that will almost certainly be challenged in court, with taxpayers paying the legal bills, whether you are a resident or visitor or seasonal, and then that is less money we have for quality of life issues. This policy is not government-lite, but government-heavy, as it seems we are going in the government-heavy direction.”
Former Town Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said from the audience, “The Town paid for me to go to a legal education program on short-term rentals not that long ago, and I asked the question to a panel of six attorneys and all said unequivocally that lawsuits will be the result, as was my gut reaction anyhow. This area is still too unsettled, so maybe even a year is not long enough, and the Town does not have the staff time to even enforce its current codes. I prefer the Town spend money on Code Enforcement employees rather than on defending its ordinances in court. Keep in mind, however, the Town does receive numerous complaints on this issue, so there is a problem to solve.”
“We are currently battling this in Cape Coral, where they are considering twice as much regulation,” said Chris Lopez of the Royal Palm Coast Realtor Association. “We do not yet have a position here until we see the actual ordinance. I can say that you open yourself to a lot of exposure to lawsuits over the restriction of rental rights.”
“What we have to do as a community is email Council,” said realtor Jane Plummer, who also serves on the Local Planning Agency. “Send your opinion to them all, because they say they know who their stakeholders are and who they represent, but they do not know.” “Reach out to Council,” encouraged Loughrey, “and let them know how you feel. Council Member Joanne Shamp said she wants to hear from everybody, so inundate them, and show up at these meetings, as the more people there, the more opportunity to voice our opinion.”
“Has anyone looked at the complaints between long-term versus short-term rentals,” asked Jacki Liszak, Island homeowner and President of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. “On my street, long-term rentals are in disrepair, with junk in the yard, brawls and police calls, so I would like to see that data.” “Jacki, that comes up over and over again,” emphasized Beverley. “I myself would be impressed if the Town actually kept track of complaints,” said Lopez to a roomful of laughter. “That would be the first question I would ask.”
And Four Nuns
“Council can shoot down all rentals on this island by one single word,” cautioned Plummer: “FAMILY! If you are not a single family, they can prohibit you from renting here. I asked if four nuns traveled together, if they would be exempt, and the answer was ‘No!’” “If that happens,” Lopez added, “then March and April here will be dead, without seasonals or visitors or firefighters,” with the audience shouting out, only half in jest: “What! We can’t have that!” “In all seriousness,” he continued, “if you adopt this ordinance, everything grandfathered to you in the past goes right out the window.”
At this point, Milligan asked if the consensus was to send a message to Council, to encourage them to slow down and enforce the Town’s current statutes, and it seemed as though every hand in the room went up.
Following this, Hosafros reminded everyone that “people need to come to terms with the fact that property rights can be a very loose term, because the right to a quiet neighborhood is just as valid a right, so you can’t just throw out property rights because they cover both sides of the question. It is good for all of us to acknowledge there is a problem and do the right thing and offer concrete suggestions on what the community can positively do to solve it.”