'We're not your enemy': Residents, short term rental operators struggle at TDC workshop

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Residents of southern Walton County complaining that short-term vacation rental housing and visitors are ruining the area's quality of life tangled politely with rental owners and operators during a nearly two-hour public workshop late last week on potential changes in county regulation of those homes.

Broadly, residents want the county to take a two-pronged approach to the issue, with one prong being beefed-up regulation of parking and other issues associated with visitors using short-term vacation rentals during their vacations to the beach.

A second approach advocated by residents is tougher zoning controls on vacation-rental housing in light of the trend toward so-called "monster houses." Those multi-story rental accommodations can sleep a dozen or more — in some instances, many more people — creating inordinate noise, trash and parking issues.

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County planners, at the direction last summer of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, have developed a draft ordinance for short-term rental regulation. Developed in conjunction with previous workshops like the one held Friday under the auspices of the county's Tourist Development Council, whose duties include marketing the county to potential vacationers and improving beach-related infrastructure.

Overall, county Planning Manager Kristen Shell said at the workshop that the draft ordinance looks at life safety issues, neighborhood compatibility issues, communication between vacation-rental owners and guests, and regulation of site design.

Among other things, the draft proposes a vacation-rental certification program under which owners of such lodgings would be required to provide information about those lodgings, including the interior layouts.

Additionally, the draft ordinance would set parking standards for short-term vacation rentals, requiring one parking space for every three occupants. Also, the ordinance would require a minimum number of trash containers for each rental accommodation.

Short-term vacation rental accommodations, like these lining Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach in southern Walton County, are the focus of ongoing regulatory efforts by the county, in conjunction with residents and vacation-rental owners. A draft ordinance on short-term vacation rentals, however, likely won't see action until local officials assess how eventual state legislative action this year will affect such local regulatory efforts.

But even as the county works toward its own ordinance, local officials, residents, short-term rental operators and others with interests in the issue must be aware of the possibility that state legislative action could preempt any local effort at control, warned Clay Adkinson, the county's interim counsel, who also serves as the TDC's counsel. 

At the very least, Adkinson noted that waiting on legislative action could delay any county action on short-term rental regulation.

"We do expect some degree of preemption and limitation of local authority on short-term rentals will make it through the Legislature this year," Adkinson said.

In particular, Adkinson said the county is tracking one bill that would sanction local governments for passing regulations that are subsequently preempted at the state level. He added that the county also is interested in a legislative proposal that would allow private businesses, like vacation-rental operators, to sue local governments if a decision by that government results in a loss of business revenue or profit of more than 15%.

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As a result, "It is almost certain that the county is going to not be in any position to take any action on this (proposed county vacation-rental) ordinance until we see what bills are passed by the Legislature," Adkinson said.

"It simply makes no sense for the county to pass a bill with some restrictions in it, or some terms in it, that the Legislature then says is pre-empted or restricted to the state," he added. "Until this legislative session is over and we know what bills have passed, and not, and what the future of those issues look like, there's no way for the board to take action, or at least it wouldn't be prudent to do at this time."

But Adkinson's admonition did not quell discussion at the workshop

Among other things, it prompted Barbara Morano of the nonprofit South Walton Community Council to suggest that the county instead move to address the issue through its land development code.

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Noting that it appeared that adopting a short-term vacation rental ordinance would be a lengthy process, Morano suggested that the land development code be adjusted to address burgeoning short-term vacation rental construction projects, particularly in and near single-family neighborhoods.

"The code needs to be changed as soon as possible," Morano said. "We have to stop what we see building."

Going on to reference the so-called "monster houses," Morano added, "We have to stop the incompatibility that's happening to people who live here full-time."

Interestingly, Morano's suggested approach found some support from Amy Wise-Coble, general manager of Homeowner's Collection, a local short-term vacation rental operation. Noting her opposition to a short-term vacation rental ordinance, Wise-Coble said, "We have got to stop this at planning and zoning and get it right so we're building correctly and compatibly. That is success for the future."

For the more immediate future, though, local attorney Brian Montague — a resident of Seagrove Beach, where short-term vacation-rental issues like noise, trash and parking have proliferated — suggested another approach, particularly for short-term vacation rental owners who don't live near their properties.

Montague said the county could "be more vigorous in visiting upon remote owners the liabilities for those sorts of situations, particularly where they're chronic."

Montague argued that the county has the ability to exercise police powers, and doing so "would go a long way toward assuaging our misgivings about short-term vacation rentals."

In addition to Wise-Coble, a number of other short-term vacation rental owners and operators spoke Friday, sounding a common theme that most of the problems seen from short-term vacation rentals come from a small number of the people and companies who offer their accommodations to visitors.

"We want the best guests we can get down here," said Jim Bagby, who operates a number of rental properties in the county. "We want them to behave. ... We are all on the same team."

But, "What we're asking the county to do, I think, is just kind of tighten the controls a little bit — not kill the goose (the tourism industry, centerpiece of the local economy), just put something around its stomach so that it doesn't explode," Bagby added

Also speaking Friday was vacation rental operator Brittany Blackman, who argued that the majority of short-term vacation rental properties and their operators aren't necessarily the problem.

"I don't know of any owner or property manager that's like, 'Yes, I can't wait for somebody to come one night, and ruin my (vacation rental) home and be a pain ... to everybody in the neighborhood."

Like other vacation-rental operators, Blackman said the issues that need to be addressed are building and parking regulations rather than short-term rental operations.

"We're not your enemy," she said.