Sarasota city commissioners were supposed to consider short-term rentals. Then the fireworks started

Article Courtesy of  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune

By Timothy Fanning    

Published October 22, 2020


SARASOTA – The Sarasota City Commission was poised to consider a new round of regulations on short-term rentals, such as Airbnb stays.

But that was before neighborhood associations threw up the caution tape and the elected officials sniped at each other in a virtual meeting on Monday.

The majority of commissioners said that the public didn’t have enough time to read or digest a report by the city attorney that may serve as the foundation for a number of sweeping changes to the city’s rules on short-term rentals.

But Commissioner Hagen Brody said elected leaders were “kicking the can down the road” to postpone action. He also went as far as to accuse City Commissioner Willie Shaw of making up his mind ahead of any presentation.

Shaw pushed back.

“I am a bit confused that Mr. Brody can read my mind on my vote,” Shaw said. “You are spectacular.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie called Brody’s comments “disingenuous” and “rude.”

The commissioners were poised to hear a presentation by City Attorney Bob Fournier and set to begin discussion on a potential ordinance. There would be a number of public hearings before a vote on any ordinance.

Freeland Eddie said it would make more sense to hear from those directly impacted by a potential ordinance alongside a report from Fournier.

“It gives context to the decisions being made,” Freeland Eddie said.

While commissioners agreed to push the discussion to a later date, it’s unclear when.

Short-term rentals, most commonly listed on websites like Airbnb, have popped up across the state since 2011 as property owners and renters look to squeeze more money out of their apartments, condos and houses by renting their property for a few days or longer.

Sarasota is looking to make a number of changes that would allow residents to host vacationers in their homes, provided that the host lives on site and is present at the home during the guest’s visit. Sarasota would also allow short-term rentals to accommodate stays of less than one week.

Short-term rentals aren’t considered vacation rentals under state law because the guest does not occupy the entire home or apartment.

Vacation rentals, particularly hotel houses, have recently seen significant opposition from barrier island residents and a proposed city ordinance that would add a number of regulations.

The proposed changes also would not impact those under the city’s grandfathering rule applied to hotel houses and other vacation rentals that bookings have a minimum stay of one week.

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The new rules could also include a registration requirement so that the city could track where rentals are taking place and collect a local business tax. Some ordinances across the state even require hosts to get a permit in addition to registering.

While the home-sharing program was brought forward a number of years ago, several residents had some serious concerns that any proposal might jeopardize the city’s grandfathered-in rule.

Lou Costa, the president of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, was the only one to speak to the issue on Monday.

Costa said the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible to reach its membership and that CCNA’s seven-member board had concerns with the ordinance. Chiefly, Costa believed that the city would effectively legalize bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.

Costa told the commission, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Costa said.

Shaw echoed those comments after saying that he would prefer that the city delay the discussion.

Brody noted that elected officials would only be codifying the ability for homeowners to use their extra space for short-term rentals. The issue had been percolating a long time and already has seen substantial interest from the community and the media, he said.

“It’s unfortunate and premature to not even allow the city attorney to bring back an analysis and report for the public that’s listening,” Brody said. It’s a “disservice in a time when people are trying to make ends meet.”

Commissioner Liz Alpert took issue with Brody’s comments.

“That’s an assumption that is not true, and to make that assumption is also wrong,” Alpert said.

Alpert noted that there was limited time for residents to dig into the issue and that any decision by the commission would not preclude anyone from stopping what they’re already doing.

“The fact that there is almost no one here also tells me that this didn’t get out into the community in terms of whether they wanted to weigh in or against it,” Alpert said.