Red tide roundtable

At the request of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, center, Mayor Cookie Kennedy, seated to the right of Crist, set up a roundtable forum to discuss red tide Jan. 11 in Indian Rocks Beach. Those at the forum included Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton; Kelli Levi, director of Pinellas County Environmental Management; Steve Hayes, chief executive of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater; Matt Loder, owner of Crabby Bill’s restaurant; and local fisherman Rodney Finke.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — The Florida Legislature is not finished with the issue of short-term rentals in the state, and residents of IRB are not finished either.

At the city’s regular commission meeting Jan. 14, City Attorney Randy Mora said bills before both the Florida House and the Senate could take away all the city’s powers when it comes to short-term rentals.

“It would preempt all local involvement in short-term rentals,” he said. “Governing short-term rentals would be the exclusive domain of the state. It would even eliminate the 2011 grandfather clause.”

As it stands, local municipalities cannot dictate how often a homeowner can rent his or her property nor for how long. Up until now, communities with laws involving short-term rentals that were in place before 2011 could keep those laws. Now, Mora says that could go, too.

Several residents at the meeting were not ready to give in, however. Bonnie Sullivan, who lives near a short-term rental, said it is threatening her quality of life.

“Short-term rentals are changing the fiber and vibe of our neighborhood,” she said. “We have owned our home here for years.”

She said in one 30-day period the house next door to hers was rented nine different times with 44 guests.

She pointed out that in her neighborhood there are 80 homes — 11 of those are vacation rentals, and only two are owned by local residents.

“That means that 14% of the homes in our neighborhood are short-term rentals,” she said. “This has become an unattended hotel district. There are constantly unacceptable noise levels.”

Sullivan is upset that the city has no control over the rentals and she is joining those fighting to preserve home rule.

“This should be in the hands of local government,” she said. “One-size-fits-all is wrong.”

Mayor Cookie Kennedy said, “This is the most detrimental issue in our community.”

Mora said the fight against the state over the rentals has been, and will be, a tough one.

“The issue is difficult,” he said. “There are competing interests and there is not a simple solution. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Some state lawmakers have argued that individual property rights are paramount and no government entity should be able to dictate what a homeowner can or can’t do with personal property.

Mora has promised to keep the commission informed on the issue. Meanwhile, Sullivan said she and other residents will continue to write letters to their representatives in Tallahassee letting them know of their concerns.

New building code arrangements

City Manager Gregg Mims has been given the green light to set up an agreement with Pinellas County that would have the county handle all the city’s building services.

Mims said the new arrangement would increase efficiency.

“Our building department consists of two people, the building official and an assistant,” he said. “There is no way they can properly handle what has to be done in a building inspection where there are plumbing components, electrical components, structural components. There are also residential and commercial differences.”

Mims said the county is in the process of upgrading its own building department with new software that will streamline the county’s efforts. He said the change would be revenue-neutral.

Pinellas County already does the building work for several other communities in the county so its involvement with IRB would just add to that total.

To have the county do building inspection and permitting work for the city is actually nothing new. Each year, the city has to call on the county for certain specialized work. There is a budget for that, and in December the city paid nearly $24,000 for building work. The annual budget is $50,000 and Mims said the city is constantly going over that budget. In 2015, $114,000 was paid to the county for building work.

Resident John Thayer, who commented that he was unhappy with local inspectors, said the move would be welcome.

“It sounds like a total win-win to me,” he said.

Commissioners agreed and gave Mims and Mora the go ahead to strike a deal with the county.

If it happens, it will eliminate two positions in the city. Mims said one person was already retiring and the other would have the opportunity to apply for a job with the county, which will have openings in its building department.

“This change for us has nothing to do with the people who work here, it has everything to do with efficiency,” said Mims.

Red tide roundtable

Kennedy said a roundtable discussion on red tide held in IRB on Jan. 11 was a success. The discussion was requested by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and involved state, county and local officials.

Kennedy said she learned more about red tide at that meeting than she had at previous events because the officials were more forthcoming in what they were explaining.

She said in the past, government officials had used carefully chosen words because of their concern over losing funding if the wrong thing was said. She said she detected none of that at the meeting.

Kennedy said the big takeaway from the meeting was the success of having fishermen go offshore and gather up dead fish before they landed on the beaches. She said that was a big help in the cleanup efforts.

“We also learned that $10.5 million to be administered by NOAA is now available for the next time red tide strikes,” she said. “It was an incredible day all around.”

In other news

• The Sheriff’s Office had some advice for IRB residents: Don’t get involved with people who are breaking the law by allowing their dogs on the beach. In a recent Facebook post, a resident told how she was attacked by a dog owner after she asked that person to get her dog off the beach. A Sheriff’s deputy said in instances like that, the resident should call the Sheriff’s Office to report the offense but not get involved, not even to say anything.

• Resident John Owens complained that the noise and lights from the pickleball courts are driving him to distraction. He wanted shorter hours and noise abatement measures taken. Another resident, Jennifer Woods also complained about the noise.

City Manager Mims said noise-restricting barriers were being set up and the lights are on a timer. He also noted that complaints about non-residents using the courts are not valid.

“Our parks are public spaces,” he said. “Everyone pays for them no matter where they live, so the courts cannot be restricted to residents-only.”

• Mims also revealed some good news: Finance Director Dan Carpenter has been admitted to the Pinellas Park High School Hall of Fame. Carpenter won the state championship in swimming at the school. He got a round of applause from the gathering at the meeting.