Over occupied? City leaders debate occupancy limits in short term rentals

Matt Algarin

Heads in beds is a popular phrase along the Emerald Coast as it relates to tourism, but city leaders in Destin are looking at heads in beds for a completely different reason.

Talks of regulating occupancy limits in short term rentals saw close to two hours of discussion during Monday night’s City Council meeting.

And at the end of that time, city leaders weren’t much closer to a solution then they were when the night started.

Since late last year, city officials have been looking into whether or not they had the ability to regulate occupancy limits in short term rentals. They even had a recently adopted ordinance from Flagler County to take ideas from.

Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell has been very outspoken on the matter, telling her colleagues that there were safety concerns associated with large groups of people staying in single family homes. She said there were multiple vacation rental homes advertising six to eight bedrooms with occupancies of 26 and 28 persons.

“These single family residences are essentially being used as hotels and motels…” she said Monday night. “This is a commercial use. Is our infrastructure able to support a commercial use in a single family area?”

“I go back to the fact that these are single family homes, single family homes,” she added. “I don’t think we want the image of 40 people in a nine bedroom home. We need to get to the root of the problem.”

Ramswell made a motion to have city staff draft an ordinance to restrict occupancy to two persons per bedroom, plus three additional occupants, but it did not receive a “second” vote of support, so it died.

Based on the speakers Monday, it seems as though over-occupancy is a concern in multiple areas of the city, such as Crystal Beach and Holiday Isle.

Jeff Robinson, who represents the Crystal Shores and Destin Beach Villas owners associations, told city leaders that while they don’t have issues with the majority of short term rentals, a small number of properties are responsible for the majority of the problems.

Issues with trash, noise and cars parking across sidewalks are the norm, he said.

“All of these problems detract from the quality of life,” Robinson said.

“If the excessive occupancy gets worse, we’ll drive away the people that come here,” he added. Robinson suggested the city adopt a “two per room, plus four” formula for short term rentals, which drew huffs and puffs, and eye rolls from some of the crowd.

New regulations may not be the answer, at least that’s what Ken Wampler, who works for Newman Dailey, told city leaders.

“If we as vacation management companies can help come up with a solution, we are willing to do that,” he said. “I would look at the city staff to see what we can do without creating any more codes.”

Others in the crowd were in favor of added regulations, citing safety concerns, a declining demographic and negative financial impacts in the city.

One of the biggest sticking points on the city’s behalf was enforcement.

Councilman Tuffy Dixon said he “feels for what the people are saying” but one of the problems is putting something “on the books we  cannot enforce.”

“I don’t know how you can say for sure, unless you went in there with a flashlight at night and counted heads, how many visitors are in a home,” he said.

Given that the spring break season is already in full speed, and the summer season right around the corner, city leaders won’t be taking any action on new ordinances this go around, but would ideally like to have something in place next year.

The city will host a workshop to further discuss the issue with stakeholders and members of the community.  The city plans to hold the meeting sometime after spring break and before the “100 Days of Summer,” Public Information Manager Doug Rainer told The Log.

“We’ve got a problem, clearly we’ve got a problem,” Mayor Mel Ponder told his colleagues. “I’d like to start tightening the screws of these things we’ve already got in place.”


“There may be some additional things the city can do by tweaking existing standards.” — Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley

“I’m not wanting to penalize what I consider normal occupancy.” — Jeff Robinson, Crystal Shores and Destin Beach Villas owners association representative.

“Citizens don’t like to police citizens, they like someone to police that.” — Ken Wampler, Newman Dailey.

“The rights of those who rent do not trump the rights of those who live here. I know in this day, it’s hard to say we can do anything without fear of legal challenge.” — George Blakeslee.

“When you start putting 16 people in a house, some people will put 20, then you start sneaking in more, that doesn’t work. A lot of these properties are rented by owners on VRBO. They rent to a family, but they do not know how many people show up. When we call them and tell them there are 14 pickup trucks in the driveway they are blown away.” Guy Tadlock, Holiday Isle homeowner.

“I do want to emphasize that enforcing what we have now through code enforcement probably isn’t enough. These problems are adversely affecting the quality of life of our residents.” Scott Fischer, Holiday Isle Improvement Association.