Randy Mora, a lawyer with the Trask Daigneault firm who serves as city attorney for several local municipalities, addresses the Barrier Islands Governmental Council on March 29 at Madeira Beach City Hall.

MADEIRA BEACH — The governor and state Legislature have been making national headlines with their prickly partisan, red-meat culture-war agenda: Guns. Abortion. “Don’t say gay.” Book bans. Transgender care.

But a municipal law expert warned local beach mayors on March 29 that under-the-radar bills under consideration in the current legislative session could have “calamitous” impacts on local governments that are just trying to sort things out in their own backyards.

At issue, as it has been for several years, is “home rule,” a concept approved in a 1968 constitutional revision that allows cities and counties to enact ordinances at the local level without the state’s blessing. Prior to that, it was difficult for local governments to so much as install a traffic light without state permission. 

While local mayors, city commissions and town boards consider the home-rule concept sacred, the arch-conservative, pro-business Legislature has viewed the idea of yielding power to those on the ground as akin to gum on its shoe. In 2008, Florida became the first state to preempt local bans of single-use plastic bags. Another law bans local governments from regulating tree removal on private property.

“This legislative session is going to be a very, very calamitous one for local governments if everything that is proposed moves forward,” said Randy Mora, a lawyer with the Trask Daigneault firm who serves as city attorney for several local municipalities. Mora spoke at the monthly meeting of the Barrier Islands Governmental Council, or BIG-C, a panel of 11 local beach mayors that collaborates on common issues. 

Among the several bills preempting home rule, the Legislature has decided to poke an irritable bear of an issue among Gulf beach communities: short-term rentals. 

Current state law does not allow local laws, ordinances, or regulations that prohibit vacation rentals or regulate the duration or frequency of rentals. 

Senate Bill 714/House Bill 833 would further restrict what local governments can require rental operators to do, such as establishing occupancy limits or inspections.

Nick DiCeglie, a Republican from Indian Rocks Beach, is the Senate sponsor.

“As a resident of Indian Rocks Beach, I know the vacation rental issue well, which is why I decided to tackle the issue in this legislative session,” he said in an email to Tampa Bay Newspapers. “SB 714 will provide local government with additional tools to manage vacation rentals.”

Mora, the municipal attorney, isn’t buying it.

“My suggestion to you thematically is that it is an enhanced preemption under the guise of empowerment,” he told the mayors. “They’re telling you they’re giving you more, but anything less than duration, frequency and prohibition is new preemption, and that’s what you’re getting with this proposal.” 

DiCeglie said the bill allows local government to remove a vacation rental registration if there is a violation of local ordinances, and the bill will give the Department of Business and Profession Regulation new authority to suspend a state-issued license for 30 days for violating local registration requirements.

The bill would allow for local registration of vacation rentals but would keep the state in charge of licensing. It would allow a local registration fee, but caps it at $50 for one unit or $100 for multiple units — not $100 per multiple unit, but $100 flat, whether that covers two units or dozens. (Indian Rocks Beach has been considering a $400 registration fee.)

Mom-and-pop to Wall Street 

Short-term rentals have come a long way since your grandparents rented out their beach cottage when they headed to Wisconsin for July and August. Businesses such as Airbnb and Vrbo have reshaped the hospitality industry, and a website that monitors local activity indicates there are more than 13,000 listings in Pinellas County. 

Meanwhile, the rebound in tourism, increase in remote work and low interest rates have caught the attention of Wall Street. Last year, the New York investment firm Aluda Grade started a venture to buy $500 million worth of short-term rental properties, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Those conditions have set up a classic showdown between locals, who fear an onslaught of short-timers and “party houses,” and property owners looking to maximize their investments.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that prohibited local governments from enacting any new law that restricted vacation rentals, prohibited them, or regulated them. Those with ordinances on the books were grandfathered. 

Amid significant blowback, lawmakers walked that decree back in 2014, allowing local governments to regulate some aspects of short-term rentals but continuing to forbid them from addressing duration, frequency, or an outright ban. 

The new bill states that a local government “may only require the owner or operator of a vacation rental” to do seven things. Among them are complying with the parking standards and garbage handling that apply to all residents in the town, and designating a responsible party who can handle complaints.

“What’s conspicuously absent from that is any kind of inspection regime,” Mora said. It also does not allow municipalities to address occupancy limits, a major issue on the beaches.

It preempts regulation of advertising platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo. It allows just 15 days for a community to consider a short-term rental application, and if there is no action by then, it is presumed approved.

“To the extent that this is being sold, billed, characterized, marketed — whatever word you wish to use — as an ‘empowerment’ to local communities, that’s a farce,” Mora said. “The only thing that it is empowering you to do is to continue being subordinate to the state Legislature, which will continue to preempt. Anything less than duration, frequency and prohibition is new preemption, and that’s where we’re at. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

Dave Will, mayor of Redington Beach, concurred.

“This has been sold as ‘giving you new tools in your toolbox,’ and ‘we’re going to help you,’” said Will. “Out here on the beaches, when the residents hear that, they drink that up. But that’s not really what it is.” 

Will and other mayors urged fellow BIG-C members to make their feelings known. The body decided to take up a letter the city of Indian Rocks Beach had prepared to log its displeasure on the vacation rentals issue and tailor that document as a BIG-C protest.

The letter urges Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to “restore, or at the very least preserve, the current scope of its home rule powers relating to the ability to regulate vacation rentals consistent with the character of the community, the will of its residents and as the preservation of public health and safety otherwise required.”

The vote was unanimous.

The list goes on

The Legislature is about halfway through its 60-day session, which is scheduled to end May 5. Senate Bill 714 was assigned to three committees, and has passed its first committee vote, but has not yet been scheduled for its second committee stop.

“To the extent there’s good news, that’s it,” said Mora.

But there’s plenty of other bills floating around for local officials to be leery of:

• House Bill 405 proposes an amendment to the state constitution to prohibit nonpartisan municipal elections. This would close primary elections to independent voters.

• Senate Joint Resolution 122/House Joint Resolution 471 proposes an amendment to the state constitution that would cut the “Save Our Homes” ceiling for property tax increases on homesteaded property from 3% to 2%. It would drastically decrease the revenue municipalities receive to fund basic operations; the Legislature’s Revenue Estimating Conference concluded that if the constitutional amendment had been in place in 2022 it would have would have reduced local property taxes by $150 million statewide.

• Senate Bill 170 would require counties and cities to produce a “business impact estimate” prior to passing any ordinance. Mora told the local mayors the bill “tends to put a stranglehold on municipal regulation.”

“Now we have to become economists and experts,” he said. “If you think the first and second reading of a newspaper ad is a prohibitive administrative delay, wait until we add somebody in the city having to devise something and then having to justify it.”

• Senate Bill 604 would increase municipalities’ liability in tort claims such as personal injury lawsuits to $400,000 from $200,000 for a single incident and to $600,000 from $300,000 for additional claims arising from the same incident.

“That’s going to put somebody out of business,” said Bill Queen, mayor of North Redington Beach.