A vacation rental is advertised on a yard sign on Gulf Drive north of Pine Avenue in Anna Maria. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin
While Anna Maria is poised to sue some vacation homeowners over rental terms, it seems the property owners also are hovering on plans for action.
If the Anna Maria City Commission proceeds with its plan to obtain a declaratory judgment on whether its hotel/motel ordinance applies to vacation home rentals, attorney Scott Rudacille said 40 vacation rental owners in Anna Maria are poised to “intervene in the action to protect their rights and to invoke their constitutional and statutory protections.”
Rudacille made his comments in a letter to city commissioners Sept. 10 as a follow up to an Aug. 22 meeting, where commissioners voted 4-1 to proceed with a judicial review of the motel ordinance to determine if it can be applied to vacation rental properties. Commissioner Gene Aubry voted no.
In a follow-up interview, Rudacille said, “Frankly, I was baffled when this came up.”
He was at the Aug. 22 meeting for another issue when Commission Chair Chuck Webb introduced his plan.
“I was stunned. I thought the commission had settled this issue back in January,” Rudacille said.
Apparently not to Webb’s satisfaction, who was prepared to present evidence against a vacation rental property at the Aug. 22 meeting. But city attorney Jim Dye said the entire commission should decide which property to target if the city undertakes a judicial review.
The process would include initiating code enforcement with a citation against either a property or properties that results in non-compliance with the citation, a hearing before the city’s special master, then an appeal to the circuit court by the loser in the hearing, Rudacille said.
“That’s my understanding of the process,” he said.
Rudacille said it appears Webb is re-interpreting the commission’s January decision that vacation rentals are legal, but must follow city codes on noise, trash and other issues.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a city do what Anna Maria is proposing,” he said. “In all the cases I’ve studied, it’s been the property owner versus the government. Additionally, a judgment in favor of the city would only apply to those particular vacation rental owners named in the suit.”
He also said there is no “bona fide dispute” between the parties, which also is a requirement for declaratory relief.
“Because the city commission has officially rejected this interpretation, there is no dispute as to the matter. As such, any attempt by the city to bring a claim for declaratory relief would be subject to dismissal,” Rudacille said.
Aubry, in an interview Sept. 10, said, “This is frivolous. We’ve already been through this in January. It makes no sense and all it will do is cost the city a lot of money. And, if we lose, the judge could award damages and make us pay legal fees. I’m totally against moving forward with this.”
Rudacille said any move by the city to go to court would be long and involved.
Dye estimated it would take 9-15 months before the city could get its case heard in circuit court.
Under the city charter, any action by the city for violation of a city code must first proceed through the code enforcement process.
“We have so many other issues, and I thought we had settled this,” Aubry said. “We have the best practices, we have law enforcement doing its job to stop loud noises and parties. We’re going to look at parking. This action for declaratory relief is a complete waste of the city’s time and money. Let’s give these other measures time to work.”