Vacation rental bill advances over beach cities’ objections

Despite opposition from a group of beach communities, including Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach, a Florida House subcommittee on Tuesday passed a bill that prevents cities and counties from passing any new ordinances that restrict vacation rentals of private homes.

The 9-6 vote by the Careers & Competition Subcommittee sends the controversial bill to the 30-member Commerce Committee, which is top-heavy with lawmakers from South Florida, where opposition to short-term vacation rentals has been highest.

The bill (HB 425), sponsored by Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, prevents local governments from enacting new restrictions on vacation homes, but ordinances in effect on June 1, 2011, would still be legal.

Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, has filed similar legislation in the Senate.

“This industry has been under attack,” LaRosa testified. “Individuals’ private property rights have been violated.”

LaRosa noted that homeowners have filed claims for damages under a state property rights law known as the Bert Harris Act and he cited a Miami Beach ordinance that levies fines of up to $20,000 for violations.

But what LaRosa calls property rights, cities and counties defend as their home rule power to safeguard public safety. They cited examples of all-night parties, excessive noise, parking problems and other quality-of-life issues.

“We view it as an attack on home rule,” said Kerri McNulty, an assistant city attorney for the city of Miami. “We are being inundated with calls from our residential neighborhoods who are complaining about these short-term rentals which are essentially businesses ... We need to be able to regulate them.”

Other opponents included the Florida Association of Counties, Florida League of Cities, Flagler County, the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, and the cities of Bradenton Beach, Daytona Beach, Holmes Beach and Lake Worth.

Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon said Tuesday afternoon he was disappointed that the bill was moving through committee so fast.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said.

Shearon said the cities on Anna Maria Island have been opposed to the bill, calling it an attack on home rule.

“We are just totally opposed to regulation of vacation rentals,” he said. “It takes away our home rule responsibilities and authority to our citizens. I believe this is an attack on our home rule responsibilities and authority.”

Supporters included the Florida Association of Realtors, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and HomeAway, a nationwide online vacation rental marketplace that is seeking to expand its market in Florida, one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations.

Three Republicans voted against the bill Tuesday, all of them in areas of growing tension between residents and rentals: Reps. Larry Ahern of Seminole, Paul Renner of Palm Coast and Randy Fine of Palm Bay.

Tuesday’s debate centered in part on whether vacation rentals are homes or businesses. LaRosa and other supporters of the bill said they are homes, but opponents noted they are regulated, the same as hotels, by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

“They are called public lodging establishments in statute,” said Eric Poole of the Florida Association of Counties.

The bill’s next and final stop before the House floor will be the Commerce Committee chaired by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and includes four other members from Miami-Dade and four from Broward.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said the rentals bill is one of a number of examples of the Republican Legislature’s contempt for home rule.

“It’s an all-out assault on local government and our ability to self-govern,” Buckhorn said, “and this is coming from the same people who say the government that’s closest to the people is most effective. That would be us.”