Holmes Beach City Commissioner Jean Peelen met with constituents Aug. 23 at Paradise Bagel Cafe to discuss her recently released report, “Crisis in Holmes Beach.” Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell
Some of the powers that be in Holmes Beach disagree with Commissioner Jean Peelen’s assessment in “Crisis in Holmes Beach,” a report she wrote and presented at the Aug. 14 city meeting.
In “Crisis,” Peelen blames builder Shawn Kaleta, rental agency Anna Maria Vacations, city commissioners, the mayor and the building department for short-term rental problems, and she calls for immediate action to correct problems, including a .30 floor-area ratio, the percent of living space based on lot size, for new construction, stepped-up code enforcement and changes in the building department.
While some defend her right to expression, others say she’s not accurate.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion even though it may be wrong,” said Mayor Rich Bohnenberger.
Commissioner David Zaccagnino wrote a letter Aug. 16 to Kaleta and Anna Maria Vacation principal Joe Varner stating that Peelen’s report was her opinion, and that it was not discussed, agreed upon or voted on by the commission.
Reading the report into the record Aug. 14, Peelen criticized Kaleta for creating an out-of-state, investor-driven rental market by building 64-100 rental homes in the city since 2004.
At the meeting, Kaleta’s attorney, Louis Najmy of Najmy Thompson in Bradenton, labeled Peelen’s comments as “libelous and slanderous” and asked that she retract the statements, cease from making such statements and disclose public records in her personal email.
Najmy had not returned a call for further comment before Islander press time.
Kaleta told The Islander, “I’m going to take a back seat for now. Obviously a lot of (the report) was inaccurate.”
Peelen’s report alleges Anna Maria Vacations allowed rentals of less than seven days – called “gap filler” rentals – in violation of city law.
Varner responded to that part of the report.
“I bought the company in April of 2011,” he said, adding that the former owner had operated it for seven to nine years.
Varner continued the former owner’s online advertising of the “gap filler” Holmes Beach properties, he said, as well as Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach properties that are not restricted by the minimum seven-day rental rule, without knowing there was an issue.
Learning recently of the issue and even though advertising does not violate any regulations, Varner said he removed Holmes Beach property offers from that area of the website.
Peelen’s report also blames the mayor, building department and city commissioners, except for Pat Morton, for allowing noise, garbage, parking and construction problems to continue.
“I have great problems with the building department, particularly the building inspector,” Peelen said.
In response, building inspector Bob Shaffer said, “Given time, the air will clear. Everything the city’s been doing has been by the rule book.”
Public works director Joe Duennes, who heads the building department, said the city’s problems are due to the burgeoning vacation rental market.
“The rentals in Holmes Beach are much more exaggerated and concentrated on a short-term basis than they ever have been before. And that’s come about largely because of the increase in size of the rental units,” said Duennes.
“I know the building department has been the focus of the problem, and I consider that unfair and incorrect. We’ve been under a microscope,” he said.
“There’re errors that have been made,” continued Duennes, “but none that affect the substantial construction practices. Everything that’s been built has been built within the land-development code of Holmes Beach, and certainly the Florida building code.”
Duennes said the problem lies with landlords and the rental agents, not with the building department.
Regarding the report’s allegation that Kaleta invaded and transformed the city with out-of-state investors, Duennes didn’t know about his investors and would not endorse Peelen’s term “invade.”
Duennes, however, agreed Kaleta has built more homes than any other builder in the city.
“He was doing what was available to do,” Duennes said. “Others had the ability to do what he did for years.”
The allegation of the lax enforcement of the LDC offended him, he said, adding that the code has been the same for years.
“The glitch is that a very attractive rental market was recognized,” he said. “It’s the new market that’s driven the whole thing.
“The opportunity to rent one week at a time doesn’t blend well with the people who’ve always been here,” said Duennes, adding, it’s “like moving a commercial area into a residential area.”
As to Kaleta’s interaction with the building department, Duennes said, “He’s aggressive and, in some cases, we have to rein him in.
“He’s building a lot, coming in a lot,” and like other builders, he wants his permits as soon as possible, Duennes said.
Asked about the city’s investigation of complaints of contractors working late, early and in violation of the LDC, he deferred comment to code enforcement officer David Forbes.
Forbes had not returned calls for comment as of The Islander press time.
In June, Forbes sent out 18 letters to owners and rental agents that he said would lay the foundation for future code violations based on noise complaints to the Holmes Beach Police Department.
The letters were sent to five property owners and their agents, according to Forbes.
In July, Forbes sent out a ground-floor living violation letter to the owner of 203 69th St., Unit B, and the rental agent. Also in July, Forbes began alerting the city’s 34 rental agencies and numerous vacation property owners of rental regulations, including noise, trash, parking and turtle nesting/beach rules.
Zaccagnino said what happens next depends on Peelen. He said she could bring up issues during her reports, attempt to obtain consensus on her suggestions, as well as request topics be included on future agendas.
Peelen brews controversy at coffee gathering
Commissioner Jean Peelen held a Coffee with the Commissioner event Aug. 23 at Paradise Cafe, and vacation rental issues dominated the discussion among about 15 people.
Among the residents were Beach Bistro owner Sean Murphy, who’s lived in Holmes Beach for 32 years.
Peelen reported the residents attended to learn of reactions to the “Crisis in Holmes Beach” report she presented at the Aug. 14 city commission meeting. She said some people were concerned about whether she or the city would be sued.
And, she said, Murphy attended to defend builder Shawn Kaleta.
“I went to listen,” Murphy said. “Finally I had to say something, because I heard such outrageous information, exaggerations based on falsehoods and misunderstanding.”
He said he was dismayed and disappointed to hear allegations of developers and city officials in collusion, and of building department records being grossly mismanaged.
“We have a great administration — very professional and accomplished,” said Murphy.
Murphy said Kaleta is a nice man, and “I don’t believe he has done anything illegal.
“There were some very nice people there who did their best to listen,” he added.
Murphy acknowledged the residents’ complaints about rental properties, including a need for better garbage removal, and a solution for parked cars where they shouldn’t be, and issues of disruptive renter behavior.
In addition to enforcing codes already on the books, Murphy favors the city implementing recommendations of Commissioner Pat Morton’s rental agent focus group, of which he was a member.
Peelen has held periodic gatherings to hear residents concerns since April.