'Monster house' plans would get broader scrutiny under proposed Walton ordinance

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Plans for some number of so-called "monster houses" — massive short-term vacation rental properties that can in some cases sleep as many as a few dozen people — would get closer scrutiny in Walton County under proposed amendments to the land development code now headed to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners for consideration.

The Walton County Planning Commission sent the proposed short-term vacation rental regulation ordinance to the County Commission with a Thursday vote that had just one dissenting voice. Tanner Peacock, a real estate professional, wanted a delay to allow time "to think through the unintended consequences" of the proposal.

With regard to so-called "monster houses," the proposed ordinance would require a review of plans for large short-term vacation rental uses, including new construction or conversion of existing single-family housing (either attached or separate structures) designed for occupancy by more than 32 people or comprising more than 4,800 square feet.

Plans for so-called "monster houses," like this four-story, 18-bedroom structure in Miramar Beach, would get additional scrutiny under proposed Walton County land development code amendments now headed to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners for consideration.

'Monster house': 7,500-square-foot rental with 18 rooms under construction on Miramar Beach

Addressing ordinance: Walton working on ordinance to address 'monster houses'

The review would be conducted by the county's Technical Review Committee (TRC) — a group of representatives of various county departments and chaired by Walton County Planning Department Director Mac Carpenter — who review proposals for compliance with an array of technical requirements, from fire safety to stormwater management.

TRC meetings also allow for public comment on development proposals, although  they must be limited to technical concerns rather than any broader frustrations with a proposed project.

Projects reviewed by the TRC can move forward only after technical concerns have been addressed by the developer to the committee's satisfaction.

Beyond the newly required TRC review, the proposal to amend the land development code would, broadly, require short-term vacation rental hosts to register annually with the county, with their properties subject to inspection; require that someone be named responsible for the property and be readily available in case of an emergency or other problem; limit occupancy to one person per 150 square feet of gross floor area; and mandate one on-site parking space for every 600 square feet of living space.

The proposed amendments also would establish an enhanced review of larger short-term vacation rental structures under building and design standards that would aim at compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood.

A County Commission vote will come only after two commission meetings, when additional opportunities for public comment on the proposal can be made.

Proposal sees considerable input

The proposal, in the works for several months, has already seen considerable public input during a series of workshops on the effort.

Those workshops followed a County Commission directive issued last year that the Planning Department craft an ordinance to get a handle on short-term vacation rentals — at least to the extent that such regulation is not pre-empted by the state, under which short-term vacation rental accommodations are viewed as public lodging establishments.

Among the flashpoints has been the development of the so-called "monster houses," particularly those built in and near what have been single-family neighborhoods.

That concern was heightened a few months ago with the construction of an 18-bedroom house just off of Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach, which apparently is a signal of a developing trend in local short-term vacation rental accommodations.

At Thursday's Planning Commission meeting, county planning manager Kristen Shell, showed a diagram of a proposed 21-bedroom short-term vacation rental project recently submitted to the county for review.

"It really doesn't look residential in nature," Shell said as the diagram, displayed on a video monitor, drew disbelieving reactions from the people at the meeting.

Tivoli Gym:Walton commissioners approve final $18,000 donation to Tivoli Gym restoration project

'We want quality jobs':Walton County to put Industrial Park land out for bids again

"This really is what people don't want in their neighborhoods," Shell said.

Carpenter quickly interjected that the proposed 21-bedroom structure will face detailed scrutiny from his department, saying that it "is qualifying for a larger (county review) process" even without enhanced provisions of the proposed ordinance. 

Work may not be complete

And even though the Planning Commission voted to send the ordinance proposal on to the County Commission for further action, panel members hinted that work on the document might not be completed.

They suggested that county commissioners consider an additional requirement that contact information for a responsible party be posted on short-term vacation rental properties so that problems at the property can be easily reported, along with a requirement that any such person be able to be on site within an hour, as opposed to the two-hour standard in the current document.

With the proposed amendments, the county is walking a tightrope between addressing community concerns and not running afoul of state preemption of any local public lodging regulation. In comments on the Planning Commission proposal to require posting of contact information on rental properties, interim county counsel Clay Adkinson said even that move might subject the county to legal action on the grounds that it exceeded state regulatory requirements.

Concern about state preemption also is a reason that the proposed would establish a requirement that on-site parking comprise one space for every 600 square feet of living space. 

Amid continued pressure from Planning Commissioner Dan Cosson to require more on-site parking, Shell said that the proposed requirement presumes that four people would be traveling in a vehicle at a short-term vacation rental. That four-person calculation leaves the county within a state requirement that accommodations provide 150 square feet of space per occupant, she noted.

Pay raises:Walton employees get immediate 5% pay hike amid concerns about inflation, attracting talent

More solar power:Second FPL solar power generation facility in Walton County on way to approval

"I think this is a pretty hefty requirement," Shell said, adding that "tying the parking standard to that (state requirement) puts us in a good place in case we have (legal) challenges (to enacted amendments)."

For example, the proposed parking requirement would mandate six on-site parking spaces to accommodate as many as 24 people.

While it is not yet clear how the short-term vacation rental market might respond to the county's proposed new controls, Shell told Planning Commission members that she believes the provisions will address the issue of out-of-scale short-term vacation rental properties.

"I believe they will respond with smaller units," Shell asserted.  

Her position got agreement from representatives of the short-term vacation rental industry and associated enterprises.

'Traffic, infrastructure, overcrowding':Walton residents surveyed on pros and cons of tourism

"The parking standards themselves are going to be enough to keep the houses small," said local real estate attorney Stephen Tatum, who represented developers. 

Jeanne Dailey, the founder, CEO and sole owner of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties Inc., suggested that unfettered development of large short-term vacation rental accommodations could make Walton County less attractive to visitors and residents.

"We don't want to lose the ambience of Walton County by having 21 bedrooms" in rental properties, she suggested.

However the process of getting the proposed land development code amendments in place works out, the county needs to move quickly, said Barbara Morano of the South Walton Community Council. 

"In my opinion, we've got to move as soon as possible," she said.