Vacation Rental Bills Would Eliminate Flagler’s Ability to Regulate Occupancy or Conduct Inspections

A Flagler Beach vacation rental advertised on the site of Flagler County’s tourism bureau.

Nearly identical Florida House and Senate bills that would all but eliminate Flagler County government’s authority to regulate vacation rentals are making their way through committees. The Senate bill started as more friendly to local regulations, and one committee approved it unanimously. But amendments have since pared that local regulatory power.

The Legislature, led by Flagler County’s delegation, in 2014 approved a measure that returned short-term rental regulatory authority to counties and cities, after that authority had been largely eliminated in 2011. Flagler had pushed for the authority after more permissive rules turned neighbor against neighbor in parts of the county, especially the Hammock, when many homes were turned into rentals and others were built for the purpose.

The booming vacation rental industry has pushed for deregulation since 2014. Lawmakers have introduced bills to that effect every year since. The bills have failed every year, at times with Flagler County commissioners and the county attorney personally lobbying lawmakers and appearing before committees. They have not done so in the last several years, leaving the work to the county’s lobbyist and trusting that the bills would ultimately fail.

On Monday, County Attorney Al Hadeed spoke with renewed concern about the current bills, HB 325 and SB 512.

“They will essentially eliminate the present program that we have for vacation rentals by creating an exclusive registration program that would not have us inspecting vacation rentals, that would not have any of our standards, such as occupancy limits and the like, to be applicable, Hadeed said. “So it is a very significant change to our regulatory platform.” For example, the county could adopt parking and garbage requirements, but the requirements may not be any different than those imposed on ordinary residences, which has the effect of nullifying inspection capabilities since a local government does not–and would not have the capabilities nor the political will–to conduct home inspections. But code enforcement still has authority, depending on a jurisdiction’s enforcement regime.

To the benefit of local governments, the bills also would regulate advertising platforms and require vacation rental owners or operators to remit tourism development taxes. In Flagler, short-term rentals carry a 5 percent sales surtax that generates substantial revenue for the county. The revenue is administered through the Tourist Development Council, and pays for promotion of the county, beach management and capital improvements to the tourism infrastructure. That revenue would not be affected by the two bills. Still, Hadeed said, the remaining provisions of the bills would have a “very significant impact on our ability and on any other local government, cities or counties, that have regulatory programs in place.”

The House bill cleared the Regulatory Reform Subcommittee and is now before the Ways and Means and the Commerce committees. The Senate bill cleared the Regulated Industries Committee in January and the Community Affairs Committee last week, the latter on a 6-3 vote, with Sen. Travis Hutson, who represents Flagler, voting in favor. Hutson had helped shepherd the 2014 bill through the Legislature, when he was a House member, though the heavy lifting at the time was done by then-Sen. John Thrasher. Hutson has favored deregulation since, and is sponsoring other bills that have local officials across the state worried. (See: “Sen. Travis Hutson’s Bill Giving Business Power to Suspend Ordinances Through Suits Worries Local Officials.”)

It is likely with bills of the sort in mind that Hadeed told commissioners Monday that many bills in consideration “are not favorable to local government.”

Hadeed has been speaking with Holly Albanese, the county’s library director and legislative liaison, about drafting an amendment to the bills that would be proposed through the local legislative delegation, though Hutson’s stance may make that difficult.

There are some 48,000 public lodging establishment licenses across the state, fewer than 5,000 of them to hotels and motels. Vacation rental condominiums and other rentals account for over 30,000 licenses, according to a legislative analysis, an indication of the surge in the vacation rental industry over the last decade.

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