Homeowners upset with enacted ordinances in Anna Maria and Holmes Beach are taking legal action against the cities through the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act.
Under the 1995 act, homeowners can seek relief or compensation “when a new law, rule, regulation, or ordinance of the state or a political entity in the state, as applied, unfairly affects real property.”
“It’s basically a right to make a claim against a governmental entity that takes an action that causes your property value to decrease beyond which it was prior to that action, in a way that decreases your investment-backed expectations for the property,” said Louis J. Najmy, principal at the law firm of Bradenton-based Najmy Thompson, P.L., which has several clients in Holmes Beach and many in the city of Anna Maria.
In Anna Maria, located in the northern part of Anna Maria Island, those who filed Bert Harris claims have taken issue with Ordinance No. 15-807, which establishes the maximum occupancy of a short-term vacation rental to be two persons per bedroom and a total of eight occupants per vacation rental.
All the Bert Harris claims are about occupancy. By limiting the occupancy, they’re claiming that we are limiting their income that they can make from the property. That’s about it.
Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy
Bert Harris claimants in Holmes Beach have cited a number of issues, according to Mayor Bob Johnson.
The main fuel behind the ordinances at the root of the Bert Harris claims is the attempt by island officials to address the many pressures facing the 7-mile barrier island and its position as an “Old Florida,” family-oriented beach community. Officials and residents alike have continued to struggle with issues such as traffic congestion, noise and regulating the conversion of single-family homes into vacation rentals.
“Our neighborhoods were being destroyed. Suddenly, one house would go up that was eight bedrooms, and all the rest of the houses were two or three bedrooms, maybe two stories — smaller houses,” Holmes Beach Vice Chairwoman Jean Peelen said. “And then a second one would go up. It’s a classic block busting.
“What happens when more than one of these huge weekly rental houses go up on a residential block is that people start moving out because they bought their homes here to retire in, to live their lives out and then suddenly next door to them 22 people are inhabiting the house next door. All day long kids are screaming in the pools, at night people are noisy.”
The residents, Peelen said, are robbed of the quiet enjoyment of their homes.
Johnson declined to go into detail on the Bert Harris claims filed against Holmes Beach, but confirmed that the city has received about 10 as of this past week.
“It’s really too premature and early in the process to really have any discussion about that right now,” he said. “We’ve got a number that we have received recently and they’re in the process of undergoing some review and analysis.”
Several claims filed and posted publicly on Holmes Beach’s website cite Ordinance 15-12 as the main hindrance. Peelen said the ordinance restricts short-term vacation rentals to two persons per bedroom or six people, whichever is greater.
“The other type (of claim) is someone who says, ‘I bought my house in 1993. It was always my intention to build it bigger and have it become a rental house like so many of our neighbors have done, and now you have passed a separate law that says in the R-2 district you cannot build more than a four-bedroom house,’” she said. “This kind of lawsuit says ‘We were always intending to build a bigger house and rent it out and now you passed a law that we can’t do that and, therefore, you have devalued my property.’ ”
Aaron Thomas, an associate with Najmy Thompson, said estimates of loss of value from his clients range between $120,000 and $400,000.
The city of Anna Maria has had 72 Bert Harris claims filed as of Friday, according to City Clerk LeAnne Addy.
“We settled 33, we have offers pending on 18 and we have offers waiting for signatures, as in they’ve accepted the offer but we’re waiting for them to formalize ... there’s 11 of those,” Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said last week. “All the Bert Harris claims are about occupancy. By limiting the occupancy, they’re claiming that we are limiting their income that they can make from the property. That’s about it.”
Murphy added that he didn’t realize so many would file claims, but that city officials are working through it.
To turn around and give these people back the right to have so many people in a home, to me it was a waste of our ordinance that we spent a lot of time working on.
Anna Maria Commissioner Nancy Yetter
“I feel very optimistic that we will resolve most of these claims without going through litigation,” he said, adding that settlements the city has made generally has allowed claimants to have two persons per bedroom, plus two more people.
There have been no payments of monies, Murphy said.
At an Anna Maria Commission regular meeting on Oct. 27, city officials voted 3-2 to settle 11 Bert Harris claims. Commissioners Nancy Yetter and Chuck Webb were the two dissenting votes.
“First of all, I think it negates the original intent of our vacation rental ordinance, which was to limit occupancy because we were having so much trouble with overcrowding, creating noise and parking problems,” Yetter said. “So to turn around and give these people back the right to have so many people in a home, to me it was a waste of our ordinance that we spent a lot of time working on.”
Yetter said she agreed to settle for one group of claimants after several residents called her and said they had no problem with the occupancy level the owners were requesting.
But in the Oct. 27 meeting, Yetter said she “really couldn’t support giving a blanket OK on this.”
In Bradenton Beach, no Bert Harris claims have been brought against the city, according to Mayor William Shearon.
“We’ve been kind of behind the curve on doing things and our Planning & Zoning Board is making a recommendation on vacation homes in residential areas,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate. We haven’t had any Bert Harris claims or concerns … or I should say, at this time.”