Holmes Beach Commissioner Jean Peelen read a report she wrote into the record Aug. 14 before a packed city hall chambers, targeting builder Shawn Kaleta for invading the city eight years ago and transforming it into an out-of-state investor-driven rental market.
Peelen’s report, titled “Crisis in Holmes Beach,” also blamed a lax land development code, and bad contractors — as well as the mayor, building department and city commission “with the clear exception of Commissioner (Pat) Morton” — for allowing the problems to fester.
The report also blames the crisis on blatant violations of rental agents and owners, who advertise online finished ground-level game rooms and homes for less than seven days in violation of city zoning codes.
The five-page report, with 16 pages of attachments, including residents’ accounts of construction worker- and renter-related noise, trash and parking problems, was met with sustained applause from the crowd and strong denials from Kaleta’s attorney.
Commissioner John Monetti also pointed to the “six to eight months” the commission has spent on such issues, and read an anonymous letter into the record questioning the city’s crackdown on ground-level living spaces for ping-pong tables in garages and air conditioners in storage spaces.
Louis Najmy, attorney of Najmy Thompson of Bradenton, took the podium, saying he represents Kaleta, Joseph Varner and an Anna Maria Island coalition of property owners, and that he also owns property in Holmes Beach.
Najmy labeled Peelen’s comments mostly “directed at one individual” as “libelous and slanderous,” and asked that she retract the statements, cease from making such statements and disclose public records maintained in her personal email account.
In the past several months, Kaleta, who is a principal in several contracting and development companies, has been referenced at city meetings about short-term rental problems blamed on the increased number of multi-story rental homes.
Recently asked why he’s not been involved with the city process, Kaleta said he’s been focusing on achieving a .30 floor-area ratio for his future home designs.
Peelen’s report alleges Kaleta has built at least 64 houses in the R-2 zone, and estimates a total of 100 homes since 2004, many in violation of the city’s comprehensive plan and land-development code.
“I think the commission, building department and most of the people who’ve had approval authority over the projects feel otherwise,” said Najmy.
Peelen wrote in the report, “I believe the city of Holmes Beach is in a crisis. It is a crisis that has been building for the last eight years but only recently noticed.
“I believe that while the city has not been legally complicit in creating the crisis, they have, at the very least, been unconcerned and allowed the developer to have his way,” she said.
Peelen’s report also claims some instances of utility thefts.
City attorney Patricia Petruff said people should call the police if they witness anyone plugging in appliances or hooking up to water when they’re “confident the owner didn’t give permission.”
Najmy denied the theft of utilities, saying there was only “one charge of violation.” He called Peelen’s reference to contractors’ employees working illegal hours both inaccurate and unsubstantiated.
Peelen’s report also pointed to a rental website, Anna Maria Vacations, currently under investigation by code enforcement officer David Forbes, for offering rentals of less than the seven-day minimum permitted in the city’s Residential-2 district.
“That is simply not true,” Najmy said.
The Peelen report also compares some rental homes, those that accommodate an average of 16 people, to a “weekly invasion of 32 new people,” equivalent to a “7-11 opening next door to your home.”
As far as the report’s criticism of large homes being commercial uses, Najmy said vacation rentals are permitted under the city’s code.
“It’s something that every property owner and person who lives in Holmes Beach needs to, and must, accept,” he added.
“Tonight’s reading was at our objection,” Najmy said, “because of the harm to the individual” and “property owner who has enhanced and contributed to our community.”
Petruff declined to advise Peelen against making her statement.
Peelen’s report claimed “the pace of the commission has been without urgency” and called for decisive action by the city on the following:
• Require a floor-area ratio of .30 for the R-2 zoned district.
• Deny or place on hold R-2 building applications that exceed a .30 FAR.
• Inspect job sites to ensure nuisance-free neighborhoods, with the issuance of stop-work orders or citations as appropriate.
• Cite rental agencies for repeated noise complaints at managed rental properties.
• Require remedial action to correct ground-floor room violations, including removal of doors, finished flooring and illegal walls.
• Issue a warning to Kaleta to halt the design or building of houses with finished rooms on the ground floor.
• Issue violations, not warnings, to the owners of every property in the R-2 zone advertising stays of less than a week on www.annamaria.com.
• Issue a violation to Anna Maria Vacations for advertising rentals for less than a week.
• Hire an additional, experienced code enforcement officer.
• Consider the termination or demotion of the current building inspector.
Others addressing the commission included residents Diana McManaway, who said the FAR limitations would not necessarily encourage residential homes over rentals.
Frank Leggio spoke in favor of large homes that comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency standards and the city’s regulations.
Varner, one of the owners of Anna Maria Vacations, told of recent renters complaining about the treatment received while visiting in the city.
Varner read a letter from a Lakeland resident, who said she’d vacationed for 40 years on the island, but would not return because of how her party in a six-bedroom rental was treated July 4 by Holmes Beach police officers. She alleged they threatened jail and scared children in their response to a neighbor’s noise complaint.
“That’s the type of response we’re getting on a regular basis from guests coming to our island,” Varner said.
Morton took exception to the letter’s allegations, saying he knew every police officer, and did not believe such an account.
City planner recommends more study
City planner Bill Brisson attended the Aug. 14 Holmes Beach commission meeting to address some of the proposed changes to ordinances in response to the rental issues.
He recommended additional study on proposed land-development code changes, including floor-area ratio limits, to ensure compliance with the comprehensive plan and avert legal challenges.
“Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time,” Brisson said, adding he would report alternatives to the commission at its Aug. 28 meeting.
Floor-area ratios and increased setbacks will not cure the city’s problems of overcrowding, amassing garbage and noise, Brisson said.
He viewed these problems as indicative of too many bedrooms, acknowledging a need to change the definition of bedrooms to “sleeping rooms.”
While Brisson said the study would make recommendations for all residential districts, he proposed a limit of three bedrooms for a duplex unit.
Commission Chair David Zaccagnino and Peelen disagreed on limiting bedrooms, and pointed out that additional people come with larger houses.
“If you have a 4,000 square foot house, you’re highly likely not to put 15 people in there,” Zaccagnino said.
“There’s lots of ways to play with bedrooms,” Peelen said.
Commissioner Jean Peelen said a focus group “ended up after three months of study, recommending FAR as the only effective means” to control the short-term rental problems.
Commissioners also described the problem as one of large homes that are out-of-character in their surroundings.
Zaccagnino told Brisson the commission voted 3-2 on a .30 FAR. Brisson said he could “almost guarantee” a .30 wouldn’t hold up in a study.
Other proposed regulations being reviewed include requirements for noise-baffling for pool equipment, at least one parking space per bedroom, and a 5-foot minimum pool and deck setback with no pool in any front yard or facing a street.