Ordinance One-Year Anniversary
The previous Town Council of Fort Myers Beach, after months of debate over Short Term Rentals (STR), with 43 of 52 residents and business owners speaking against it, passed an updated Ordinance by a 3 to 2 vote on May 7, 2018, with then Council member and now Mayor Anita Cereceda and former Council member Dennis Boback voting against it. As it takes 90 days for a new Town Ordinance to become law, the amended STR Ordinance went into effect last August 5.
Short Term Rentals must register and pay a fee to the Town within 90 days of any STR business; receive a registration number for all advertisements; supply the unit address; owner contact information; 24/7 contact to address any issues within one hour; and renew this information and fee annually, among other items. STR fees are $100 for new registrants, with a $50 annual renewal fee if made prior to December 15 of each subsequent year without violations. If the Town’s Special Magistrate finds that a renter committed three violations in a 365-day period, the fee increases to $1,000 for the next year, and for those with four or more violations in a 365-day time frame, it is $1,000 for each of the next three years.
“The initial STR registration period was valid for approximately 18 months, through December 31, 2019,” explained Town Manager Roger Hernstadt. “To date, there are 1,591 registrations with fees totaling $209,150. For calendar year 2020, if the same number of properties register, the annual revenue will be $79,550 because the Renewal Registration Rate falls to $50-per-year. Of the many municipalities that determine that a vacation rental registration/regulation adherence was warranted, Fort Myers Beach has, if not the least, one of the least costly fee structures. For example, in the Middle Keys, the annual renewal fee is $250-per-year. The mandatory registration process is going well and we continue to focus on properties that did not register and try to circumvent minimum durations.”
In 2018, the Town received 1,261 registrations and so far in 2019, an additional 330 to account for that 1,591 figure. To date, 39 condominium complexes exercised the Code’s Opt-Out provision.
The Town’s STR goal is voluntary compliance, said Hernstadt, “to have zero complaints – so fewer complaints means that property owners/managers and their guests are complying with the original 2003 STR Ordinance. The May 2018 updated regulations only mandate annual registration and require a good faith attempt by the property owner/manager to intervene if there is a reported issue. Since the regulations to operate a vacation rental cover more than just the Code of Conduct – things a neighbor would not necessarily know if a property is in compliance – the number of complaints in and of itself may not be a good indicator of compliance.”
One aspect of the amended Ordinance was establishing a 24-hour contact number to report violators, “But our experience so far is the vast majority of people still directly contact Town staff and elected officials when they have an issue, since Town staffing is available daily until 9 p.m. The Town’s focus is educating property owners of their ‘Good Neighbor’ and reporting responsibilities under the Code – the annual registration among other tools provides a reminder of these responsibilities.”
Hernstadt stated that the Town “was surprised that some vacation rental managers were not fully aware of the duration limitations or other obligations under the original 2003 STR Ordinance. Therefore, we go slow and focus our energy on the important aspects – the things that affect the quality of life – like minimum stay durations and Code of Conduct. For example, the lack of a registration number on an advertisement in and of itself would not be a top priority for us at this stage, but rather combined with the other reported more serious concerns if they arise. In addition, we changed the staff person assigned to this and consequently are now more effective.”
Some properties were able to operate violating the minimum stay duration or other rules that were not subject to additional scrutiny, said Hernstadt. “To put it in context, the 2018 amended STR Ordinance only mandated registration and required a good faith attempt by the property owner/manager to intervene if there was a reported issue, without placing 100% of the burden on Town staff. The mandatory registration and intervention process brings focus to good vacation rental ownership/management practices – such as but not limited to safety/occupancy inspections and remitting tourism taxes – that are beneficial to all properties.”
References to ‘minimum stay duration’ refer to the question of whether rentals are in a monthly zone or weekly zone, meaning whether the property may be legally rented out once in a one month period or once in a week-long period. Section 34-2391 of the Fort Myers Beach Land Development Code states that most residential zoning districts restrict rentals to a single family during a one-month period, with a minimum stay of one week. Exceptions include property along Estero Boulevard and between Estero and the beach, plus any rental property that had pre-existing rentals as of January 1, 2003. Those exception properties may rent to a single family for one week or longer without the once per month maximum. These restrictions were not changed with the 2018 STR Ordinance, and have been on the books for 15 years, but are now seeing enforcement action. Opponents of the 2018 STR Ordinance protested the one family limitation, though that aspect of the ordinance hasn’t received much attention in the past year.
Council Has Final Say
When asked if he is relatively happy with the status of STRs, “That is a question for the elected officials to decide. That said, vacation rentals are a difficult issue because the property adjacent to yours may not be a vacation rental or might be one with excellent management and ownership, so their guests never cause any neighbor issues or concerns. But if you recognize that this circumstance can change at any time or you live or lived near or next to ‘the vacation rental from hell,’ then you are a strong supporter of the Code of Conduct, mandated registration, and a good faith attempt by the property owner/manager to intervene to resolve a reported issue. While the Town Manager shares their professional knowledge and experiences with Council, the Council creates the laws and ordinances and policies and resolutions. It then is incumbent upon the Town Manager and staff to implement the Ordinances and Resolutions to the best of their ability. Council has the final say since they can reduce issued fines to zero dollars.”
When recently asked by Council for a STR analysis, Hernstadt replied this would take at least another year for a more complete answer. “What I meant is that the Town’s vacation rental zones have minimum stays of either a week or a month. Duration adherence and Code of Conduct issues are where vacation rentals can adversely affect the quality of life, so that is our primary focus. We emphasize these elements to promote community harmony. It is up to Council to determine if the concerns have been solved in perpetuity or need ongoing monitoring and intervention. That suggested period will allow Council to truly evaluate and determine that going forward.”
Anyone with Short Term Rental questions may contact Town Hall directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-765-0202.
Amy and Rick Loughery have owned “Distinctive Beach Rentals” for 15 years, with over 300 rental clients, and were among the most vocal critics when the Town began to examine amending its STR Ordinance, and they are no happier now. Amy even turned in three competitors to the Town over STR violations, as she feels the Town targets Distinctive Beach Rentals while giving others a free ride.
“That is why I did it,” Amy explained. “There is another major rental company on Fort Myers Beach that has a comparable number of signs to us, and not a single one has a registration number, while Code Enforcement informed me about three weeks ago that just one of my signs, out of more than 300, was missing one registration number that by coincidence is a number I am waiting to receive from the Town. The other firm has yet to face any repercussions, yet the Town knew I was missing one single number, so tell me we are not targeted! That is why I turned in those three companies – the Ordinance is failing miserably because the Town doesn’t come after the people they like, while punishing those they do not.”
One of the companies Amy turned over to the Town just received a substantial fine, “and I was shocked to see the Town Magistrate fined them roughly $20,000 for their violations. Not only is that a ludicrous amount, but the Town did not do a single thing to earn one penny of that money, as they did nothing to find the violator except follow up on my complaint. Now I feel bad, as I not only did not expect the Town to take any action against them, much less issue such a large fine. I guess that proves the Town is actually going after people who violate the rules, but there seems like there is no middle ground: either they completely ignore violators or they drop the hammer!”
An important component of the amended STR Ordinance is the 24-hour Hotline to report violations, with an immediate follow-up by the property owner or manager to resolve the issue within one hour, yet Amy does not see this having any impact or even operating the way promised by the Town. When asked about the 24-Hour Hotline, she laughed before saying, “That is a good one! We know of an incident where a neighbor tried to resolve a noise issue, but the renter was belligerent and swearing, so they called the 24-Hour Hotline, only to discover you just leave a message and they return your call the next day, so what help is that to anyone with an issue in the middle of the night. In another instance, we received a complaint call about a home that our client sold, so that is no longer one of our properties, meaning the Town does not always have up-to-date information on its STR registry, and that was another reason they implemented the registration fee.”
While Amy continues to have issues with the STR Ordinance, she has true compassion for the one Town employee in charge of the program. “She is completely overwhelmed, so I feel for her. I don’t know why, with all the money we pay in registration fees, the Town only has one fulltime person handling Short Term Rentals, as they should have enough funds now on-hand for at least two fulltime people. We paid approximately $40,000 in registration fees and what we are receiving in return is basically nothing!”
Amy is attempting to help Lauder Street residents with a rental violator situation. “The Town does not treat everyone equally, and Lauder Street is a prime example. One neighbor said they have been having an issue since August, as they feel they are being extremely intruded upon, but the Town does not seem to want to enforce its own Ordinance. They come to me for just one missing number, while showing no interest in helping the Lauder Street folks, so that is one more indication they are targeting me because I vehemently protested their actions, while leaving others completely alone, even though we play by the rules, including paying tens of thousands of dollars in registration fees, while others do anything they want in a free-for-all fashion.”
Sondra Reid and her Lauder Street neighbors have been dealing with their STR issue since August. “We live in an area where you can only rent your house once a month, to only one family at a time,” she explained. “The house next door rents out for usually three nights at a time and several different times each month. Recently they rented to 17 men, then the next week to 14 college boys, and those times were so loud we called the Lee County Sheriff’s Office over noise complaints at 2 a.m. Over the Memorial Day Weekend, one group who rented it for three days left on Sunday afternoon, and a new rental group arrived that night. We notify the Town to seek a remedy, but all they tell us is there is an ongoing open investigation, with nothing happening so far.”
Reid explained, “I have nothing against Fort Myers Beach rentals, as there are other houses on our street that go by the book, so if you want to rent out your house by the week, buy in a weekly rental area. I know rental companies are supposed to be responsible and that one received a pretty hefty fine for several violations, but the Town seems slow to enforce their own STR regulations on residential streets. In this case, the Town knows what is going on, yet they don’t enforce their own rules.”
She has lived in the Town for 31 years, Reid explained, “and I abide by the rules and expect everyone else to do the same. I generally have no complaints about the Town, as I love it and plan to always live here, but if you create a law, enforce it. The people who own the house know it is a problem, as we confronted them about it, yet they keep doing it because they say they cannot afford to keep it if they do not rent it. Maybe the problem will work itself out, as the owners now have the house up for sale.”
Mayor Anita Cereceda voted against May 2018 amended STR Ordinance. “I felt it was more about the process when we modified it, and to me, Council should be about more than creating a process. A year later, however, the amended STR Ordinance seems mostly effective, from what I hear from several property managers, in that it gives their clients and their neighbors some comfort, now that we created the registry to contact them should problems arise, so it might be better than I thought. That said, we have a ways to go to achieve complete compliance.”
She considered whether she would change her vote if she could: “I don’t look back on things and wonder if I did or did not do the right thing. The previous Council made that decision, and I support what we did as a group. One major concern I had then about amending the original STR Ordinance, even slightly, was that might place it in jeopardy from the State of Florida eliminating it, as that is the direction the State often moves against local government issues.”
Cereceda recollected on her comments from a year ago, when she stated that, “I cannot speak to the level of anxiety that is prevailing in our community now, and Short Term Rentals is just one reason why people are upset.” “Today, the Town’s anxiety level is down, not only on the STR Ordinance, but on several other ‘Hot Button Issues.’ I am not saying everyone is happy about everything, but now our residents seem to have a good comfort level, and do not believe the Town is as adversarial over many issues, including Short Term Rentals. The Town is elevating its spirit of service and that to me is who we are, and that should be our whole gig! Our goal is to figure out things for you, then help you attain what you need. This Town is full of strong-willed individuals and entrepreneurs and mavericks who live and breathe and work for this community, so naturally something like the STR Ordinance was, is, and likely will always be a ‘Hot Button Issue.’ I hope, however, as time goes on, that what we did in the past as well as recently will serve the entire community as a whole.”
By Gary Mooney
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