Karen Lugo, a constitutional law attorney and Destin vacation homeowner, writes: "If government disregards the interests of one group, what is to stop them from applying the same treatment to anyone? Ethics matter. Professionalism matters."

Destin City Council just asked state government to give it even more power to regulate vacation rentals. This happens at a time when beach vendors, pontoon boat businesses, and vacation homeowners already have been hit with rounds of burdensome regulations and fees.


This may not seem important to Destin residents but imposing stifling regulations on tourist businesses and lodging is likely just the beginning. And what should be of larger concern to locals is that this year’s huge fee hike for vacation rentals was done in a series of shady moves.


Local government owes everyone proper procedure. One of our Supreme Court Justices is famous for saying that "Process Protects Us." This generally means that as government regulates, raises taxes and fees, or initiates criminal actions, there should be meaningful notice, transparent hearings, and opportunity for input.


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Destin City Council could not be described as honest when raising rates on short-term rental registrations last summer. In fact, the published Aug. 5 meeting agenda showed no proposed change in rates. The posted fee schedule listed 2020 registration fees at $200 – same as 2019 (this was already up from $50).


But as the meeting began, a supplement was provided – only to Council – that revised rates up to as high as $700! No prior city workshop on fees notified vacation homeowners that this surprise was coming. The Council instantly voted – with no opportunity for informed comment from homeowners -- to adopt the shocking scaled fees.


Only Councilmember Chatham Morgan commented that this fee hike with several others "was a tax increase by another name." He was right. And a tax or so-called "fee" increase should be given fair notice. Morgan, alone, voted "no."


But just as alarming, when it was time to register vacation rentals, owners learned that City replaced the words "square footage of unit", as the vote and minutes confirmed (customarily found in Florida zoning text as "dwelling unit"), with the term: "gross square footage." This modification meant that non-heated spaces like garages, driveways, and balconies would be used to bump homeowners into even higher fee categories! In one year, a stealth rate increase on top of a huge, sneaky fee increase.


If government disregards the interests of one group, what is to stop them from applying the same treatment to anyone? Ethics matter. Professionalism matters.


Citizens want to believe that government intends to be fair. Most of all, procedure does protect us. This is what guarantees our due process rights.


FEB. 25, 2020: Navarre, Destin, South Walton dominate list of best places to buy vacation homes


Policies that hurt vacation rental homes, impact all of Destin. A study by the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management showed that an average of 11% of Florida tourist families come to stay in vacation homes rather than hotels. In a popular beach town like Destin, the rate is likely at least double that percentage.


The same researchers revealed that short-term rentals draw almost $27.5 billion to the Florida economy. Destin surely receives a large share. "[These] renters remain in the state longer, some up to 30 days, and spend more money, on average $1,000 per person," according to the associate dean of research.


Vacation rentals operate at very thin margins when risk is considered. Not only does everything have to be near-perfect to keep the critical 5-star rating, but costs of continual repairs, rising multi-insurance premiums, preventative maintenance, and expensive same-day servicing are continually increasing. Many homes have negative balance sheets and there is foreseeable hazard with phenomena like coronavirus, storms, and economic downturns.


JAN. 18, 2020: Battle looms over short-term rental regulations


Importantly, most vacation homeowners are already required to minimize inconveniences to neighbors by paying neighborhood associations. They are charged for local courtesy officers, beach patrols, and trash valets. Now Destin is charging again, ostensibly for policing the same issues.


Vacation homeowners work to be good neighbors. In many cases, these are beloved second homes. Owners consistently support strong penalties and fines for any who do not follow the rules. But vacation homeowners are political orphans, not even stepchildren. Most are not eligible to vote in the city where they own second homes and politicians know that they have no political recourse.


When any property and due process rights are disrespected, it should alarm everyone.


Karen Lugo is a constitutional law attorney and Destin vacation homeowner.