Anna Maria appears willing to go to court for a judicial decision on whether its hotel/motel ordinance applies to vacation home rentals.
Commission Chair Chuck Webb, at an Aug. 22 meeting, said city code states that if a residence in the residential zone with “three or more bedrooms” is rented, it is a hotel/motel, and the code prohibits hotel-motel rentals in any residential zone — other than the retail-office-residential zone and those operations that are grandfathered.
City attorney Jim Dye said the city will need to sue one or two vacation rental owners on the allegation they operate a hotel/motel to obtain a judicial ruling.
In 2012, the Florida Legislature enacted a statute that allows any homeowner unrestricted use of his or her property as a rental, unless the governing authority had restrictions in place at the time the statute was passed.
Webb said that vacation homes are operating as motels, and the city had motel rental restrictions in force when the Legislature passed the rental relief statute.
Dye, however, said he’s looked at the statute several times and, central to the issue, is how a lodging unit is defined in the city code.
He said code enforcement officer Gerry Rathvon has called on several vacation rentals, asking if only one bedroom could be rented. Each time she has been told “no,” Dye said.
“So go slowly with this,” the city attorney advised.
Webb, who also is an attorney, was ready to provide Dye with examples of several vacation rentals he believes operate as motels, but Dye said the commission should view “all the evidence” and make a decision on which vacation homes should be sued.
“The court would need to see factual evidence. The city can’t just go and say this is a code violation,” Dye said.
The evidence must include citations for operating as a motel/hotel in violation of the city ordinance. “And it’s not an easy process,” Dye said. He estimated it could take 8-15 months for a case to wend its way through the judicial system and go before a judge.
Attorney Scott Rudacille told commissioners he believed the matter to be concluded several months ago when a commission decision was not to cite vacation rentals.
At that time, Rudacille represented about 40 property owners who opposed the use of code enforcement against a vacation rental home.
But Webb said the commission agreed then not to enforce the code.
“This is different,” Webb said. “We want to seek declaratory relief that our code applies to vacation rentals.”
Rudacille said he’s “baffled that the city is doing this whole process again,” but Webb countered that he and other commissioners have received complaints from residents about vacation rentals, and the city has little control over such properties.
The city needs to know if its code applies to vacation homes, Webb insisted.
Dye advised that the best way to have the statute changed is through the legislative process.
But commissioners appear ready to test the code’s effectiveness.
Commissioner Dale Woodland said it’s time for the city to “fish or cut bait” on the issue.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to move forward with identifying one or two vacation rentals where the city code could be applied.
Webb said the commission would need to have several workshops to identify any problem vacation rentals and determine how to file for judicial relief.
Mayor SueLynn said she wants this process “out in the public” for input, both for and against.
Commissioner Gene Aubry voted against the measure, saying he considered the matter settled when the commission decided previously not to use code enforcement against vacation rentals.
In other business, commissioners unanimously approved a permit for the Waterfront Restaurant, 111 S. Bay Blvd. to offer full-service alcoholic beverages.
Owner Jason Suzor sought the ordinance amendment that paved the way for liquor sales several months ago and was the first to apply under the new rules.
City planner Alan Garrett said the Waterfront met the criteria for the permit, and alcoholic beverage sales at the restaurant, including what until now has included only beer and wine, would end at 10 p.m.
The commission, at the meeting, continued a public hearing on the historic preservation ordinance to Sept. 12.
And the commission approved the final reading of an amendment to the residential parking ordinance, which allows the city to include parking spaces on a residential property for overall lot coverage.
SueLynn told commissioners she met with county administrator Ed Hunzeker and Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Elliott Falcione to discuss using resort tax funds for city pier improvements, as well as other tourism needs in Anna Maria.
The next commission meeting will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, at Anna Maria city hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.