Florida Lawmakers Sign Off on Vacation Rentals Plan

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a plan aimed, in part, at addressing “party houses” at short-term rental properties, as the use of online platforms such as Airbnb continues to skyrocket.

Regulation of vacation rentals for years has been a thorny issue for the Legislature. Champions of short-term rentals maintain that they provide extra income for homeowners, while critics complain that noise, trash, and traffic woes from a revolving cast of visitors negatively transform neighborhoods.

The Senate voted 23-16 to approve the plan (SB 280), which was approved Wednesday by the House in a 60-51 vote. The House made changes to a version passed earlier by the Senate, requiring another vote Thursday in the Senate. The bill is now ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The bill addresses one of the key sticking points over the years — an effort to “preempt” regulation of short-term rental properties to the state.

Current law bans local ordinances or regulations passed after 2011 that prohibit vacation rentals or regulate the duration or frequency of rentals.

The bill would preempt regulation of vacation rentals to the state while allowing local governments to have short-term rental registration programs that meet certain parameters. The bill would “grandfather” in regulations adopted by counties before 2016. During floor debate Thursday, Senate sponsor Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, said the exception applies to Flagler County — home to House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast — and Broward County.

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The exception drew sharp criticism from Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Sunny Isles Beach, whose district includes parts of Broward. Pizzo said Broward County does not have an ordinance.

“The only other county that gets an exemption is the House speaker’s. Want to know why the public doesn’t have confidence in state government? It’s because of that,” Pizzo argued.

Pizzo said the House’s Wednesday vote was rushed and several Democrats were too late to vote on it.

“I think the public is tired of special carve-outs and a race to the (voting) board,” he added. “The House speaker shouldn’t get a special exemption.”

The measure, in part, seeks to address “party houses” in beachfront communities by restricting how many people can stay overnight at properties.

The bill would set maximum overnight occupancy at “two people per bedroom, plus an additional two people in one common area, or more than two people per bedroom if there is at least 50 square feet per person, plus an additional two persons in one common area, whichever is greater.”

The plan also would allow officials to suspend registrations for “a material violation” of local codes that do not apply solely to vacation-rental properties. It would also allow local officials to charge a “reasonable fee” for registration inspections.

The measure would require the state Department of Business and Professional Registration to set up a database with information about vacation rentals and assign a “unique identifier” to properties. Platforms would have to include the unique identifier and any local registration numbers on advertisements or listings for the property and collect and remit sales taxes on rentals.

The plan also would require vacation-rental operators to “designate and maintain” a responsible party “who is capable of responding to complaints or emergencies” related to the property, including being available around-the-clock by phone.

Pizzo argued that the bill would strip local governments of control over what he called the most important legislative issue for his beachfront district.

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But DiCeglie called the bill a “good product” that should help ease litigation over vacation rentals and ensure that property owners’ rights are protected. The bill sets up a “framework” for local governments, he said.

“I’m not doing this just to do it. If I thought this was a product that was going to make things worse and it wasn’t going to address an issue, I would never, never present that to my colleagues at all,” he said.

Four Republicans — Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami; Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Homestead; and Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville — joined Democrats in voting against the measure.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, disputed that the proposal would take away local officials’ control.

“The cities are getting more than what they had (in an earlier Senate version of the bill). They can charge whatever registration fee they want to charge. They can charge whatever renewal fee they want to charge. They can charge whatever inspection fee they want to charge,” Mayfield said.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from coastal communities spoke against the measure during House debate Wednesday.

Rep. Hillary Cassel, D-Dania Beach, rattled off a series of ills -– including shootings and near-drownings — that took place at vacation-rental properties in her district.

“This is something that if we get it wrong, our cities and our neighborhoods are ruined,” Cassel said.

Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, pointed to part of the bill that would set up parameters for when local registrations can be suspended. Fine indicated that the suspension provisions are too lenient and said the bill doesn’t do enough to address sexual predators and human trafficking.

“When you buy a home, you have bought the right to live in a residential neighborhood,” Fine said. “I get no joy in trying to kill a bill from a (House) member, but I also think about the fact that I want my kids to be able to ride their bikes to the library.”

But House sponsor Griff Griffitts, a Panama City Beach Republican and former Bay County commissioner whose family was in the hotel business, urged his colleagues to support the bill, despite its flaws.

“This is not a perfect bill. … I have these Airbnbs in my neighborhood. I know the problems they create. This is one step forward to creating a uniform registry where people like all of us can make sure that everybody is doing things above board, paying their taxes, getting their health and safety inspections so that the public at large can remain safe,” he said.

Tiffany Edwards, executive director of the Florida Professional Vacation Rental Coalition, said the bill lacks consumer protections. Edwards told The News Service of Florida the bill is vague and does not require renters to be notified if a vacation rental is suspended or revoked.

“None of us are sure what a ‘material violation’ or ‘reasonable’ fee are. With no clarity on those, and no right to be reinstated after a local license has been revoked, this bill will be a vehicle for unfriendly local governments to methodically permanently purge legitimate businesses,” Edwards said.

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