Town Hall Meeting: “Whoa!”
The message sent by the majority of nearly 20 speakers from a full house Wednesday night at a Short-Term Rental Town Hall meeting was that they don’t want any more regulations, don’t think the Town needs any more regulations and want the whole process slowed down.
The meeting which was not broadcast or live-streamed, but was recorded, according to Town Clerk Michelle Mayher, was held on Wednesday, September 27, 2017. While an hour and half had been reserved for the meeting, it wrapped up in just over an hour.
The Town is considering a revised short-term rental ordinance that would augment their existing, though not entirely enforced 2003 ordinance. Several years ago the State of Florida passed a law that prohibited any new local short-term rental rules but allowing existing rules to stand. Any change in a grandfathered short-term rental ordinance would result in the entire thing being thrown out. In 2014, that law was revised, allowing some changes. A letter to council dated September 27, 2017 from Town Attorney Jack Peterson indicated that his research showed that the proposed Fort Myers Beach ordinance falls within the parameters the state allows.
Mayor Dennis Boback began the meeting by welcoming attendees, acknowledging that the topic was a controversial one and asking that everyone remain respectful.
Town Manager Roger Hernstadt shared the results of Town Council’s Strategic Planning sessions earlier this year, emphasizing that one of their goals was to “responsibly manage change to sustain our vibrant community.” He asked speakers to introduce themselves and share their role in regard to the short-term rental issue. He also shared a matrix comparing the current short-term rental ordinance and the proposed ordinance.
Summarizing the current and proposed ordinances, the handout showed that currently the ordinance limits occupancy to a single “family,” while the new one adds a formula of 2 people per legal bedroom plus 2 additional people. The new ordinance calls for providing contact information and registering units. The registration number would need to be used in any advertising of the unit. Owners would need to provide a certificate of compliance with the fire district registration ordinance also. The current regulations call for a code of conduct with limits on occupancy, refuse and quiet hours. The proposed one keeps those and adds animal control. It also requires an in-person response within 60 minutes of a complaint.
Nearly 20 speakers took the floor to share their thoughts on the proposed ordinance.
Helen Gustafson spoke first asking how would any new ordinance be communicated to homeowners, who would be responsible for making sure that Lee County records are accurate and why does the Town need to know how many times she rents her property and for how much? (The proposed ordinance calls for “dates of unit rental and the number of occupants per rental.” Section 1F)
Joel Douglas questioned an ordinance that required him to evict someone within 90 minutes. Hernstadt and Lt. Tim Lalor of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office both said that was not required as part of the ordinance. Lalor emphasized that when they are called for a disturbance or noise or any other reason, they show up and help manage the problem, whether a new ordinance is passed or not.
th Lee with Palace Vacations made the point that people rent homes here with their friends to play baseball or golf; rentals are not always a family-based vacation. She also questioned the 2 people per bedroom plus 2 limit, saying it was “outmoded.”
Executive Assistant Fire Chief Ron Martin was asked to explain how the Fire District determines occupancy limits. “We calculate based on square feet and egress capacity…our intention is never to limit a person’s use of their building,” said Martin. “We want them to get out safely in case of fire. We want them to be able to evacuate a building.”
Thanking Town Council for the work that they do and acknowledging that they are trying to make the town better, Amy Loughery, co-owner of Distinctive Beach Rentals, managing nearly 300 rental units, said she was “completely against the new ordinance. The 2003 ordinance does what you want.” She then asked why Town staff was not able to deal with the problem rental units and described a case where with about 30 minutes effort she was able to identify the owner of a problem unit and determine that it was not registered the the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, nor the fire district or county. Complaints were filed on the property in 2013 and 2015 regarding weekly rentals in a monthly rental zone and both times the case was dropped. “If I can do this in 30 minutes, why do we need to add new regulations? The ones we have are not being enforced.”
Homeowner Joe Tekulve expressed concern about the “three strikes” rule in the new ordinance. On the third violation, owners would have their registration suspended for 180 days. “A group of crabby people could get together and suddenly you’ve got three strikes.” He also urged that noise complaints be handled as noise complaints by calling the sheriff’s office.
Lt. Lalor reminded attendees that the LCSO does “not have a dog in this fight.” They will respond to handle a noise complaint or any other complaint and they have calibrated sound meters.
Barb Zinkosky spoke as a VRBO homeowner. She said she’d happily register but would have trouble with the required 60-minute response time and the three strikes provision.
The grandfathered weekly rentals drew commentary from Kathy Smith whose house was not grandfathered in under the 2003 ordinance. She said she believes its value is reduced as a result. “I have had 5 annual rentals trash my home. I’m not going back that way. I think that our property values on the south end are worse for the fact that we can’t have weekly rentals….I’ve never had a short-term rental that caused a problem. I wish it was fair and wish Fort Myers Beach was fair.”
Doris Grant was the sole property owner who spoke in support of the ordinance at the meeting. She expressed concern about safety issues and wondered when there would be a fatality related to overcrowding of rentals during spring break. She said she would like to see the maximum occupancy posted on the outside of each rental along with contact information for the owners or managers. She also asked if a list of rentals would be made available to the public.
Director of the Estero Island Taxpayers Association Beverley Milligan told attendees that an EITA meeting recently drew 50 people who were concerned about this ordinance. Their conclusions included no real position on the ordinance, as there has not been enough information shared. They would like to see enforcement of existing code and want further study of the economic impact of any new ordinance. “Everybody has property rights and those rights need to be respected,” said Milligan.
Former council member Rexann Hosafros spoke, telling attendees that she has concerns about the legal risks of the proposed ordinance as it seems to be patterned after a Flagler County ordinance which has been legally challenged and not yet made its way to the Florida Supreme Court. She noted that Flagler took over a year to change their ordinance and had over a dozen public meetings and once they changed it, they had to revise it. “Fort Myers Beach does not have the resources to fight a lawsuit like that,” she concluded.
Jacki Liszak, homeowner, business owner, resident and President of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce explained that she wears many hats when she looks at the Island. She agreed with other speakers that the process to change the ordinance needs to slow down. “People think of their home as a second home and with this ordinance, you’ll make them think of it as a business. Do you really want that?” She suggested taking a close look at what the current ordinance does and see if enforcing that would work.
Following the speakers, Hernstadt summarized what he’d heard and said that since three members of council (Boback, Tracey Gore and Joanne Shamp) had been present to hear what homeowners had to say, he thought that there would be further discussion in the next Management & Planning session. He added that council was likely to provide plenty of opportunity for public input before any change is made.
The next Town Council Management and Planning meeting is set for October 5th at 9am.