The Marco Island City Council is cracking down on absentee property owners, and during the October 21 regular meeting, city councilors took on three topics specific to the movement.
First, they hired City Attorney Burt Saunders to lobby for proposed state legislation that would return the regulation of short-term and vacation home rentals to local governments. Currently under development by Senator John Thrasher and Rep. Travis Hutson, the bill would repeal a 2011 law passed to open up short-term rental opportunities for property owners. The two-year-old law allows property owners to rent their homes with fewer restrictions in the hopes that the steady income will prevent missed mortgage payments and eventual foreclosure.
“The time is right to get this type of legislation moving because tourism is way up,” Saunders told the City Council. “The basis of (the original) legislation was to promote tourism and that is just not necessary now…. I think the timing is good to make a change so the city of Marco Island can without any question regulate short-term rentals.”
City councilors believed less regulation on short-term rentals has created a problem for long-term residents. “We are hearing more of single-family homes being rented out to a ‘family’ only to see four, five, six or more cars show up with a huge amount of people for a week or two at a time, allowing for loud partying, parking across sidewalks, parking on swales and just generally making it hard for the residents in the neighborhoods to have a quality of life,” explained Councilor Bob Brown in an independent interview.
Chairman Joe Batte agreed: “Short term rentals have seriously eroded the quality of life many of us came here for. ‘House hotels’ in single-family residential neighborhoods having transients and owners who have no respect for their neighbors continues to grow. Owners of these ‘businesses’ in residential areas must get the word that quality of life is important and obeying laws is their responsibility.”
To that end, city councilors also approved the first of a series of changes to the city code enforcement ordinances. This one strengthened the city’s ability to fine and execute code enforcement violations by broadening the definition of a violator to include the property owner. It will be particularly important when dealing with renters that violate the code. Prior to the change, if a renting tenant was issued a code enforcement citation, there was no leverage for enforcement because the renter did not own the property. “We are now holding the property owner responsible for the actions of his tenants,” noted Daphnie Bercher, assistant to City Attorney Saunders, during her presentation to City Council.
Every member of the City Council was on board with the change, hoping, as Councilor Larry Honig indicated during the meeting, that “presumably the owner will put pressure on the renter” to fix the violations without having to proceed to serious code enforcement action.
“This ordinance is a significant step,” Councilor Larry Sacher explained in an interview after the meeting. “There seems to be a direct relationship between problem renters and absentee owners that don’t seem to give a darn about the problems they are creating.”
This change — and others currently being prepared by Bercher — also may lead to the city filing more liens on properties and, when necessary, foreclosing on those liens. According to Bercher, Florida statute already allows local governments to foreclose on liens. This ability does not have to be written into the ordinances. She is hoping the changes she proposes coupled with this statutory right give the city the teeth it needs to cure long time violators.
Batte believe Bercher is on the right track. “I do see more liens coming,” he admitted after the meeting. “Perhaps this will send a message to those who violate our laws.”
Finally, council took up the question of a sidewalk ordinance already on its books but not readily being enforced. The ordinance requires property owners to maintain the sidewalks in front of their parcels at their own expense, but some councilors expressed a reluctance to begin enforcing the ordinance now. As a result, the question was passed on to the Planning Board for further investigation and direction.
Councilor Sacher, though, sees the old, crumbling, cracked and uneven sidewalks around Marco Island as serious pedestrian safety hazards. He was not happy that “a policy decision of council” was passed on to the planning board. “I think we need to get back to it and give policy direction to the Public Works Department as to whether or not they should be enforcing this ordinance,” he stated.
Still, days after the meeting and with distance from their decisions, some city councilors caution against regulating private property owners too much. Councilor Brown believes a balance must be struck between the rights of the property owner and regulation: “I think we need to be careful in that we don’t want government to intrude in our lives any more than necessary, yet it must protect its residents.”