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Short-term rentals discussed at length

April 3, 2013
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Regulation on short term rentals on Estero Island is under review again, leading to much debate about how to handle a delicate balance between resident and renter.

The Fort Myers Beach Town Council discussed issues relating to a 10-year-old ordinance on the matter at a special workshop, one that welcomed public comment and ended with Council direction to Town staff and attorney.

According to Town records, short-term rentals are dwelling units that are rented for a period of 6 months or less but must maintain a minimum of a week stay (only once per month on latter stay period in some zoning areas). Regulation restricts the rental in certain zoning districts to a single family (one or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption).

On one side, there is belief that short-term rentals are "disruptive to the fiber of residential neighborhoods," while opposing views see regulation on them as affecting property rights.

"It's not working yet. Something has to happen to make this work for the greatest good and the greatest amount of people involved," said Councilwoman Jo List.

"Unfortunately, we have to work with what we have," said Councilman Bob Raymond.

The issue battle began in 2003, when the Town adopted the Land Development Code, which included difficult-to-enforce provisions regulating short-term rentals.

Back in Sept. 2011, a proposed draft ordinance to modify the existing ordinance received mixed views at a workshop chaired by Councilman Bob Raymond. The workshop involved setting more defined rules and regulations to ensure compliance with Town building and fire codes and to protect the health, safety and welfare of occupants involved with seasonal rental properties (rental period of 6 months or less) on Fort Myers Beach. The draft ordinance and discussion was dropped before it reached a public hearing.

Due to many letters addressed to Town officials, Council requested to bring the matter up again. It was reported that there are many "illegal rentals," ones that are not registered with the Town and do not make regular payments of Lee County's three-percent tourist development tax.

Town officials will review the ordinance and its legal positions in regards to a 2011 state statute that still allows a local government to maintain existing short-term rental regulations, yet has overtaken the right of control of issues related to the rentals.

Town staff will also look into how ADA rules will affect the ordinance, how condo/neighborhood rules apply to the ordinance, answer previously asked public questions and inquire about ongoing legal action regarding the matter.

Since a state statute "severely limits what a local government can do prospectively," it has become more difficult to enforce the ordinance.

"The state statute provides you no shields and no protection from any legal action that might be taken based upon the contents of the wording of the enforcement of the particular ordinance in place," said Town Manager Terry Stewart.

Tweaking the existing ordinance may be difficult. Town Attorney Marilyn Miller will look into how much can be "changed."

"What is clear is that we cannot amend what we currently have to change it. What is unclear is what would happen if we challenge their position," she said. "It really is unchartered territory at this point."

There has been previous discussion over the Town LDC "Code of Conduct" for all rentals. The current rental regulations involve occupancy; refuse collection; "Quiet Hours" (limited noise between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.); and a hurricane evacuation rule.

Short-term regulation involves intensity of use not density of use. There is currently a $100 annual registration to offset administration costs.

Public comment offered differing views from the homeowners' right to "peaceable enjoyment of their property" to the island being a tourism destination with business people having the right to rent their properties for a reasonable return on their investment.

"I would rather have a resident next door that I can deal with rationally," said Laguna Shores homeowner Bruce Butcher. "Weekly rentals could mean I can have 12 different parties to deal with in a three-month period of time versus seasonal or by the month."

"There were a lot of homes that were zoned exactly the same, yet they have several different property rights," said Realtor Jessie Titus. "I am sorry about the people who thought they had bought into something that protected them from having a short-term rental next door to them, but they didn't."

South end resident Don Rollins stated that a recently unoccupied home by his residence sold, turned into a rental and advertised for one-month minimum. That might not be the case.

"Since then, we have noticed an awful lot of activity on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It sure looks like a weekly rental to us," he said.

Property renter Amy Loughrey doesn't like the ordinance definition of "family," which limits two separate older couples from renting a short-term dwelling.

"How do I question my potential (renters) without being discriminatory when there are two parties over the age of 60 on vacation who can't rent a home because you are not constituted as a family?," she said.

Former Councilman Tom Babcock stated rescinding the current ordinance "opens up every property for daily rental" and referenced it to a creating a motel all over the island without on-site management.

"That's not good for the resident or hotel/motel/bed & breakfast business. It's direct competition," he said.

Once Town officials review all materials involved within the ordinance and state statute, they will inform Council and the issue will be discussed in either another workshop or as an agenda item at a meeting.



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