TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A controversial effort to further limit local governments’ ability to regulate and inspect vacation rental properties is advancing in the Florida Senate, as the proposal’s sponsor on Tuesday assured critics that the legislation is "a starting point."
As online platforms such as Airbnb have grown in popularity, regulation of short-term rental properties has become a perennial fight in the Legislature.
State law already bans local governments from passing ordinances to outlaw vacation rentals, which have raised the ire of residents who complain of investor-owned, noisy "party houses" in neighborhoods. Other critics maintain that owners of some rental properties are failing to properly submit state and local taxes.
But proponents contend that the short-term rental properties are used to supplement the incomes of retirees and families. They argue that vacation-rental owners are entitled to the same rights as their neighbors and shouldn’t be regulated differently.
The measure approved Tuesday by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee would, for the first time, require online platforms to collect and remit taxes on vacation rental properties, ensure that only properly licensed rentals are advertised and provide the state with specific information about the rentals.
In exchange, regulation would be "preempted" to the state, largely preventing local governments from licensing or inspecting the rentals. Local governments could only regulate the rentals in the same way as other properties in neighborhoods, a restriction that cities and counties strenuously oppose.
"The beauty of this is, although on the surface there’s a lot of noise and conversation about the removal of local ordinances, it really does not remove the local ordinances that are in place or can be put in place," bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told the Senate panel before Tuesday’s 6-3 vote.
The proposal would do away with ordinances regulating short-term rentals adopted after June 1, 2011, which opponents said would be problematic for areas that have worked in recent years to develop local regulations.
Local ordinances, such as those restricting the number of cars in a driveway or limiting the number of occupants in a dwelling, would be permitted so long as the regulation "applies uniformly to all residential properties without regard to whether the property is used as a vacation rental," as defined by state law.
"They’re not restricted from passing ordinances, going forward. The ordinances just have to apply to all the properties in either the jurisdiction of the municipality or a section. I know in some communities there may be sections that are more inclined to have these types of establishments, so they can pass ordinances going forward. They just have to apply to all properties," Diaz said.
But Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said he could not support the measure.
"Just philosophically, I’m just not a fan of preemption to the state. Just, nothing," Hooper said. "It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth to try to tell local folks in their community that we think that we can better dictate to you what works best."
Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said he agrees "the issue should be locally controlled."
"People are literally building these commercial structures in the middle of neighborhoods, and it’s disrupting various neighborhoods and it’s making a big difference," Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said.
"I’m going to support it … but I hope it will be much better by the time it hits the (Senate) floor."
The Senate committee approved an amendment Tuesday that aligned Diaz’s proposal with a House measure (HB 219) that received initial approval by a House panel last week.
Speaking against the Senate bill Tuesday, Florida League of Cities lobbyist Tara Taggart agreed that property owners are entitled to certain rights.
"My neighbor and I have the same amount of property rights. But the moment that their actions impede on my property rights, that’s where governments are supposed to step in," she said.
But Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican slated to take over as Senate president in 2022, said her stance on the vacation-rental preemption has changed.
"When we started this journey several years ago, I was dead set against this concept because I heard so many complaints from people in my community about unregulated vacation rentals," she said. "This practice is going to happen, whether we regulate it or not. And you can’t have a hodgepodge of ordinances. … So, if the state undertakes a uniform scheme of regulation, and if we do it right, I think this would be better for all of our residents."
Under the proposal, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation would be responsible for addressing complaints about vacation rentals. Diaz’s proposal does not include an appropriation to beef up staff at the state agency.
The Hialeah Republican acknowledged the disagreement over his bill. But he said the proposal approved by the committee on Tuesday is a "starting point."
"I do think that this is a product that has the potential to get us to a place where we can resolve the issues and concerns and have this really be a thriving part of our tourist economy," he said.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, made the vacation-rentals issue a priority before he took over as the Senate’s leader in November.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis nixed a similar plan during last year’s legislative session.
DeSantis told reporters last February that he hadn’t made up his mind but that he was "leaning against" the legislative efforts.
"We have 22 million people almost. We are a very diverse state. For us to be micromanaging vacation rentals, I am not sure that is the right thing to do," the governor said at the time.
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