Not everyone is pleased in paradise, particularly with a decision made by Anna Maria city commissioners to proceed with a legal challenge that would determine whether the city’s hotel/motel ordinance applies to vacation rentals.
While the voice vote Aug. 22 was announced as unanimous by Commission Chair Chuck Webb, Commissioner Gene Aubry says he voted against the move.
“I think this is a total waste of time and much ado about nothing,” said Aubry.
Aubry said commissioners, Mayor SueLynn and vacation property owners and managers spent nearly a year working on “best practices” for vacation renters and agents to ease problems associated with noise, trash and parking.
“We worked for a year to get those practices approved and we amended our codes to reduce noise and other actions by renters,” he said. “We’ve already done this. Why are we doing it again? People need to wake up and understand where they live.”
The commission move, introduced by Webb, would engage the city in a legal action to determine whether the city’s hotel/motel ordinance supersedes Florida law, commonly called H.B. 883, effective July 1, 2012. The statute allows any home in Florida to be a vacation rental unless the local governing body had restrictions in place at the time the law went into effect.
If the commission goes to court, Aubry predicted “zillions and zillions of lawsuits.”
“This state law is affecting everyone in the state. To go forward with this would be a waste of money and effort,” he said.
Mayor SueLynn said she and staff had no input into the commission decision, but would do as the commission directs.
“My concern is at what cost the city might be successful. Not just in dollars but in the ill will from vacation renters such action would foster,” she said.
Aubry, who is not running for election in November, has said he would seek another term as commissioner in a future election.
“I do plan to run again and I will bring a slate of candidates that see this legal action as a waste of time,” he said. “That Aug. 22 meeting was embarrassing to me after all the time we spent with best practices and amending ordinances.”
Aubry has support against the legal action from several prominent vacation rental owners and managers in the city.
One local property manager, who asked not to be identified so he “would not be targeted by the commission,” agreed with Aubry.
“This is a waste of city time and money. I don’t understand the way Webb is interpreting this ordinance. I’m baffled.”
The property manager suggested they “mitigate these issues as we did with the best practices.”
Code enforcement officer Gerry Rathvon said she has had only seven noise complaints since Jan. 1.
But the commission has voted 4-1 to proceed with the process, a process that city attorney Jim Dye said would likely be long and costly.
First the city must identify the offending vacation property rentals, and, Dye also told commissioners they had to identify rental properties that violate the ordinance.
According to Dye, the city must proceed with the code process. That requires the city to issue a citation to an offending property for operating a hotel/motel in violation of the code. The property owner/manager then has the option of coming “into compliance with the code” by not renting the property, or taking the citation before the city’s special magistrate for a ruling.
If the special magistrate rules in favor of the city, the owner may appeal to the circuit court. If the magistrate rules against the city, the city can appeal the ruling to the district court.
Any district court ruling can be appealed, Dye said.
Webb has said he wants to know if the city’s hotel/motel ordinance applies to vacation rentals and only a judge’s ruling can decide that issue.
Dye estimated it would take between nine and 15 months to obtain a judgment on the validity of the ordinance applying to vacation rentals.
If the city proceeds and loses, a judge could order the city to pay attorney fees for the defendant, Aubry said.
Commissioners are expected to discuss the issue at their Sept. 12 meeting, and again at a Sept. 26 work session.
Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman had no comment on the commission’s decision, but she will present the commission measure to the chamber’s board of directors for consideration.