The Apalachicola city commissioners Monday night supported a stiffer crackdown on property owners who offer short-term rentals in neighborhoods where they are not allowed.

Certainly not a crackdown to the extent of a Tiananmen Square, where 30 years ago, at the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” in Beijing, Peoples Liberation Army troops liberated several hundred student demonstrators from their earthly lives

Or as bloody as the shooting of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers this week at the Gaza fence.

This crackdown is quite a bit more peaceable.

Call it the Franklin Square Protests of 2018.

A staunch wing of both the planning-and-zoning and city commissions, at a joint workshop Monday evening, sat squarely in support of a harsher measure than the status quo regarding how to handle the growing practice of leasing out houses to tourists and other transient visitors.

As it stands now, it is against the law, and infractions are followed up by a toothless, citation letter from code enforcement officer Wilbur Bellew, a letter that the penalty for crumpling up and tossing into the garbage can is nothing.

Planning and zoning has recommended all code enforcement violations, whether the violation be this matter or something regarding trash, carry a flat $250 per occurrence. So, if applied to short-term rentals, an occurrence could carry a hefty per-day penalty, or at the very least a per-visitor stay.

“We’ve been discussing this for 10 years. It’s been a hot topic for 20 years,” said Commissioner Anita Grove, jumping in at the outset of City Planner Cindy Clark’s thorough report to this joint workshop of P & Z and the city commission.

Grove, since the beginning of the year, has banged the drum loudly to colleagues, arguing that now is the time to address the growing trend among homeowners to rent out houses, on a short-term basis, well under a month, more likely under a week, in neighborhoods zoned residential, where it not allowed by law.

“We all know how hard it is for someone to find a place to rent here. It is important we adopt this,” she said. “So many properties have all turned into short-term rentals, it’s a whole market.”

Clark offered numbers, gathered about a month ago, based on a review of vacation rental sites Airbnb, VRBO, Flipkey and Trip Advisor. She estimated there are between 60 and 75 short-term vacation rental units now in the market in the city, and that as many as one-third of them are in violation of zoning.

Specifically, Airbnb lists 30 transient rentals, seven of them in residential areas where the law does not allow them. With VRBO, it’s nine of 34, with Flipkey three of 16 listings are afoul of the law. “It’s important to note that several of the non-compliant units are duplications between the vacation rental platforms, several are listed on multiple sites,” Clark said.

“A number of folks who had to turn down jobs because they can’t find a place to rent,” said Grove, who said she had understood from previous city administrator Betty Webb that short-term meant under six months.

The law, drafted in 1991 and last amended last year, makes clear that short-term is by the day or week, but less than a monthly basis, Clark said.

In her report, Clark told commissioners that because Florida lawmakers have passed legislation that allows vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, any changes that further restrict such activity are not allowed, unless a city has a law on its books prior to June 1, 2011.

Apalachicola does have such laws, and so the existing rules, that do not allow short-term rentals as either a principal use or a special exception, remain in effect in all four residential districts.

“If you adopt any regulations that further strengthen the law, you stand to lose this grandfather status,” she said.

 

Where it’s allowed, and where it isn’t

 

The O/R (Office/Residential) zoning category allows short-term rentals in the form of beds-and-breakfasts, while transient lodging is allowed in some form in the five other commercial districts, Clark said.

Following Clark’s report, the two sides to the debate soon emerged, after Mayor Van Johnson asked whether consideration could be given to those property owners who have been renting to transients.

“That’s what this is designed to eliminate,” said P & Z Board Member Geoff Hewell. “We’re finally getting to where we enforce the law.”

Asked by Commissioner Jimmy Elliott to outline the pros and cons, Clark said the primary advantage is more income to the city, in increased expenditures by tourists, sales tax revenue, and bed tax monies.

She cited Visit Florida data that estimates 113 million tourists visit the state annually, with half using an alternative to traditional lodging facilities. Short-term rentals are a $31 billion a year industry nationwide, she said, with such rentals easily worth a couple million dollars in overall revenue to the Apalachicola market.

“It’s only getting bigger,” said Clark. “First and foremost it’s an economic boost. People who come on weekends spend their money here, and no doubt it (short-term rentals in neighborhoods) is attractive to a lot of people.

“If not regulated it can be destabilizing to a community,” she said.

Elliott sought to have further discussion on alternatives for allowing the practice, with government imposing proper regulation.

“People are getting away with not paying a fee for a license,” he said. “I’m just looking to see how we can get more money in the city.”

Grove countered that such rentals give an unfair advantage to some property owners over those who offer such space where it is lawful, and encouraged.

“Those (business) people pay more money to be in a commercial area. It competes with a commercially properly zoned business, and it’s incompatible,” she said. “People can’t find smaller places to rent, and that’s very destabilizing to a neighborhood.”

P and Z Member Lynn Wilson, who opposed the stiffer measures, said the city will continue to be in need of additional tax revenue. “We’re a town that’s hopefully growing,” she said. “Before we slam the door on this, let’s look into having some latitude for various family situations.”

 

Sharp opinions, on both sides

 

What followed was a stern exchange of views from the audience on the matter, first by real estate agent Anna-Maria Cannatella, who argued any change to the existing law would be counterproductive.

“This issue goes beyond some income the city may get,” she said, noting that “there’s a lot of available property (for short-term rental) in C-1 and O/R.

“At the same time the city has a problem with affordable housing,” she said. “Taking those long-term rentals out of the pool, and by changing the zoning, you’re working against that goal.”

Real estate agent Kathy Robinson said that while she used to handle many long-term rentals, she has gotten out of the business, citing problems with tenants that led property owners to leave that market completely. She now only handles short-term housing options for clients, who find it an easier, and more profitable, way to market their properties.

Apalachicola resident Karen Cox spoke at length in favor of easing the restrictions in residential neighborhoods. She said that when she and her husband decided to invest in marketing a guest cottage and a boathouse through Airbnb, she first spoke with a representative of the Tourist Development Council “to make sure I was doing anything that was appropriate.”

Cox did not provide details on her conversations with TDC officials, who have stressed publically that their primary responsibility is to ensure bed tax monies are paid, and that they are not empowered to make zoning decisions.

"The advent of national vacation reservation programs like VRBO and Home Away has created significant problems for local governments and tourism promotion organizations,” said TDC Director Curt Blair, earlier this year. “In essence the rental of private homes and apartments can now be done without adherence to local zoning laws, health and safety standards and payment of both tourist and sales taxes.

“The impact on Franklin County's budget can be as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year,” he said. “We just don't know because there is absolutely no oversight for these rentals."

Cox said she and her husband last year earned about $6,000 in revenue from their short-term rentals.

“We have one unit for locals and one for Airbnb,” she said. ““I don’t feel it’s a homeowner’s responsibility to provide affordable housing to local people. We did it because we felt a social responsibility to the community.”

Cox said her clients are usually age 50 and older, many with pets, or particular medical or dietary needs.

“They don’t want to rent a McMansion on the island. They want to be in someone’s home,” she said. “I personalize everything for my people, it helps people navigate our communities in a more personal way.

“I don’t think that’s a lot of people taking away from heads in beds,” Cox said. “There’s no way five or six people are taking away the revenue from guest houses downtown. We only provide (for) overflow.

“We create tons of revenues, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we also donate to visiting artists and researchers,” she said. “I’m a taxpayer, this helps me pay my taxes.”

Apalachicola resident Marisa Getter also argued in favor of the practice, noting that she and her husband have been renting out for overnight stays since 2013.

“Nobody has ever complained about my guests,” she said. “This is our extra money to put away for retirement, to pay for college for the kids. We’re trying to do in a good way. We do everything for this community.”

Getter suggested the city institute a limited permitting policy, similar to how the state grants liquor licenses. “You have a certain amount and they can buy it,” she said.

“You can’t do that, you have to be fair to everybody,” Grove countered. “Zoning exists to have those controls. We have been encouraged by many, many people to enforce the laws we have on the books.”

Apalachicola resident Bruce Hall argued that short-term rentals, where they are not allowed, erode the fabric of the neighborhood.

“I live here all the time, because I wanted to live in a real neighborhood,” she said. “You need to be able to know who lives in your neighborhood, and you can’t do that.

“I for one don’t ever want to see it. You’ll have a St. George Island on your hands and that is a mess,” Hall said. “We have a law on the books and it needs to be enforced. If it isn’t enforced, then someone isn’t doing their job.

“It’s very simple, commercial belongs in a commercial district and residential belongs in a residential district,” she said.

P and Z Member Uta Hardy supported limiting rentals to no more than 30 days. She cited as an example a client of her real estate business who eyed buying a home in a residential neighborhood with an expressed interest in leasing it out as a weekend cottage, despite the prohibition against it.

A motion by Grove, and seconded by Commissioner Mitchell Bartley, to leave the zoning restrictions in place and impose penalties on violators, met with no opposition from the commissioners.

“If that’s the law on the books, let’s enforce the law,” said Commissioner Brenda Ash.

“It is the law,” said the mayor. “You either enforce it or ignore it.”