INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — There was little doubt what topic would dominate the Indian Rocks Beach candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at City Hall on Feb. 8.

The four candidates running for two open commission seats on March 14 — Preston Smith, Don House, Lan Vaughn, and incumbent Denise Houseberg — were ready and willing to tackle the subject of short-terms rentals.

After stating their opening remarks, the first question the quartet faced was about rentals. That came as no surprise, as the burgeoning vacation rental industry and its effect on the city’s tight-knight residential neighborhoods has dominated the conversation in the beach community for the past six months. 

And while all four candidates agreed something needs to be done about the issue, they varied on how to curtail the influx of rentals without damaging the barrier island’s tourism-dependent economy.

“I’m not in favor of the short-term rental takeover of our community,” said Vaughn, a self-described businessman and family man who volunteers for IRB Action 2000. He added vacation rentals “have no place in our single-family, residentially zoned areas” while acknowledging the current commission is “doing a great job” working on a new, common-sense ordinance that includes properties on both sides of Gulf Boulevard.

House, a longtime resident who lives on the beach and has run for office four times, said as a “west-sider” he has lived alongside renters for 35 years. He said it’s “a matter of respecting” each other, and he blamed the current commission for allowing the short-term rental situation to ger out of hand.

“It’s their fault,” House said of the group of five commissioners that includes Houseberg, who was seated to his immediate left. “Our City Commission said, ‘Let’s do this,’ and we’re living with it.”

Smith, a married former Largo resident who moved to IRB in 2016, said he is running because he believes “everyone should take a turn at this job,” adding his platform “is about peace, harmony and tranquility and I’m planning on finding honest, easy, sensible solutions to the battle that’s going on between our residents and the short-term vacation rentals and the vacationers also known as transients.”

Houseberg, the only incumbent, explained how city officials have been working hard to find viable solutions to the situation. She said she “doesn’t have a problem” people voicing their opinion on issues affecting IRB because “this island is filled with impassioned people.”

“We picked a beautiful place to live,” said Houseberg, a military veteran who has lived in IRB for six years and was first elected to the commission in 2021. “So, it’s no wonder it’s become so popular, and I want to make sure we maintain that charm and maintain and protect our little slice of heaven.”

During the hourlong forum, which was preceded by a 30-minute meet-and-greet, the four candidates calmly and cordially answered more than a dozen questions submitted by audience members on topics including beach renourishment, zoning heights, community involvement and more. 

But when it came time to wrap things up, the track quickly switched back to rentals.

When asked to name two things they would change in IRB immediately if money and time were no object, Vaughn replied, “I would eliminate short-term rentals from our residential neighborhoods. That would be the first thing. The second thing is, I would remove short-term rentals from single-family residences!”

The line drew laughter and applause from the sizable crowd and underscored the fact that when it comes to this year’s municipal election, one topic is likely going to play a huge role in deciding who wins.

“Compared to many past elections, there’s a clear choice where people stand,” said John Pfanstiehl, the leader of a grassroots group who led rallies for changes to the rental codes. “Everyone loves IRB, but some people are saying short-term rentals need to be required in residential areas and others say no. I think it’s an important issue because we’re literally losing the town.”

When asked if he felt the issue would decide the election, Pfanstiehl, a former candidate himself, replied, “That’s a great question. There were not that many people here to get to know what these candidates believe, and some people’s minds are already made up. So, I don’t know if this changes things or not. But we’ll find out in a few weeks.”

For more information on the commission candidates, visit this section of the LWV website: