City discusses short-term rentals

More than 200 residents attended a listening session on short-term rentals Jan. 20 at the Hale Senior Center.

DUNEDIN — After listening to mixed views for hours on short-term rentals, city commissioners say they want to continue prohibiting them in residential zoning districts.

Commissioners talked about balance and caution Feb. 19 when they informally agreed at a work session to support staff’s recommendation that the existing ordinance on short-term rentals be maintained, allowing them for commercial and mixed-use zoned areas. But they also asked staff to look at adding possible regulations and enforcement efforts.

Commissioner Moe Freaney said city officials have provided a lot of access for those who want to use their homes for short-term rentals. But she also said they have been cautious, drawing from a policy institute paper.

“In the push for the shared economy, it is still important to have balance. It’s not a reason to abandon your principles you’ve formulated over the years, and I think this is an absolute, perfect example of that,” Freaney said.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski echoed her remarks.

“Any good person who is looking at planning in the future it’s never about all or nothing. It’s about having a balance of choices. And I think we have that,” she said.

She and other city officials emphasized they are not opposed to short-term rentals. There are about 283 units in the city classified as such.

“We have no interest of trying to remove our short-term rentals,” Bujalski said. “We have very specifically put the zoning for short-term rentals in tourist areas, in areas of interest.”

City Manager Jennifer Bramley said because there is plenty of capacity in the areas where transient uses are permitted — affecting almost 4,000 units — staff is reluctant to support the expansion of the areas where short-term rentals are allowed.

There is no outcry to expand the areas where short-term rentals are allowed to accommodate visitors.

“I know that many feel this is an issue of property rights, and we heard it here this morning. It is important to note that we are not talking this morning about taking away a property right. Decreasing the area where transients uses are permitted has never been on the table,” Bramley said.

Commissioner Deborah Kynes said she would not vote to expand the area. She called the issue “property rights smack up against quiet use and enjoyment of your property.”

Commissioner Jeff Gow agreed with Bramley that under current zoning uses the city has the potential to do a lot with short-term rentals.

However, he said he was comfortable opposing the expansion until the city has more data.

A statewide issue

City officials also have been examining what other cities are doing regarding short-term rentals, such as through parking regulations.

In 2010 city officials designated in their zoning code where transient uses or vacation rentals are allowed. Cities were preempted by state officials from regulating vacation rentals in 2011.

“We are very fortunately to have any regulations in place at all,” Bramley said.

There cities that have no regulations in place certainly wished they did, she said.

The state’s language was amended in 2014 to allow cities to regulate short-term rentals through life safety and other codes. However, cities are still prohibited from regulating the duration and frequency of these rentals, as well as regulating these properties through zoning.

Throughout Pinellas County, in municipalities large and small, officials have discussed short-term rentals, with several accusing the Legislature of usurping their home-rule powers.

Commissioner Heather Gracy said she was glad the city is taking “baby steps” when addressing short-term rental issues because the legislative session is approaching.

She said she has gone to Tallahassee annually on Dunedin’s behalf regarding short-term rental issues.

“In 60 days this could be changing, and this whole entire conversation could be moot,” she said.

Commissioners get an earful

At their meeting Feb. 19, commissioners heard from numerous residents that spoke for or against the expansion of short-term rentals and ways to regulate them.

Jim Riley, a Dunedin resident, said transient housing is fine in the city where it is designated by ordinance.

“But it has no business being in our residential neighborhoods. Residential neighborhoods are for homeowners only, not transients. Residential neighborhoods are no place for businesses. And transient housing definitely is a business. And it’s a business with documented disruptions to neighbors,” he said.

He said allowing transient housing in residential neighborhoods goes against that principle.

“It will destroy your neighborhoods and eventually Dunedin,” Riley said.

Steve Townsend said he was in favor of expanding areas where short-term rentals are allowed.

“It does a lot of good having different people come in,” he said. “I rent to families. When they come in, they bring a lot of money. And they ask us, ‘Where should we go eat?’ What should they visit, where to go?”

He noted that numerous people in the audience have rented through Airbnbs, a global company that offers lodging services.

“Are you the bad person when you go on vacation?” he asked.

Commissioners also held a two-hour listening session Jan. 30 at the Hale Senior Center attended by more than 200 people, to get feedback.

Among those who spoke in support of short-term rentals was Dunedin real estate agent Katie Ducharme, a real estate agent in Dunedin who is a concierge for several Airbnbs.

Rental restrictions have been a constant battle for clients who want to rent their home for short-term vacation rentals, Ducharme said.

“I did lose a buyer to Clearwater. I focus on Dunedin and she was afraid of the rules. So that’s one person who didn’t buy in Dunedin who should have,” she said.

Ducharme said she received a bad review from Airbnb on one of her rental properties because the bathroom wasn’t clean. She was warned if the property kept getting bad reviews she would not be able to rent it through Airbnb.

“They are extremely strict. They hold you to a higher standard,” she said.

Melinda Dorgan said she has owned her home for 20 years on Roanoke Street, where she contended 50 percent of the homes are rentals.

“There is constant turnover. I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know who the landlords are,” she said.

She asked how can people buy houses in her area when the market is saturated with short-term rentals.

“I’ve had to call code enforcement more times than I can count because of the rental problem we have in Dunedin, not only short term but long term,” Dorgan said.

The owners of such properties care about cash flow, she said.

“They care about paying their bills and making a profit,” Dorgan said. “They don’t care about the community. They don’t care about the residents who have lived here for 20 years and plan to live here for 20 years more and hope their children will stay as well.”

Tom Bowers who lives with his wife, Jan, on Victoria Drive, said for the last 18 years they have run a vacation rental business in Indian Rocks Beach.

He said they were successful in controlling the impact of her business on the neighbors.

“We had rules that had to be lived by, and we enforced those rules personally. We had our neighbors call us directly if there was ever any noise or boisterous activity. It was rare that we ever had that problem,” Bowers said.

City officials also got numerous letters and other forms of written communication from residents and others.

James McKeever, a Dunedin insurance agent, wrote that he believes the current laws and zoning designations are fair and work well in the community.

But he does not believe the concept of investors buying multiple properties in the city’s residential area to rent for short-term use would benefit the town as a whole.

“It could cause disruptions in neighborhoods and could artificially increase property values. We would essentially be giving a commercial use to an area zoned otherwise,” he said.

Other issues, observations

Ideas for enforcing regulations pertaining to short-term rentals came up at the work session Feb. 19 and the listening session. Jan. 30.

Enforcement currently is on a complaint basis. This has been under discussion by state officials and city officials have been waiting to see if they make changes.

A part-time code enforcement officer has been researching properties for proactive enforcement. Some other cities have regulations pertaining to the maximum number of occupants, noise, parking and registration.

Some of those topics were discussed at the Feb. 19 meeting.

“I think we want to be reasonable. I don’t think on any given use we want to overregulate,” Bujalski said. “So I don’t want to pick overregulating on this use versus any other use that we do.”

Some cities, she said, are trying overregulate to discourage short-term rentals.

Besides participating orally and in writing, residents have weighed in the issue of short-term rentals in other ways.

Lael Giebel, assistant to the city manager, said that in December, city officials sent out a map with water bills, which showed zoning districts, enabling residents to enter their addresses electronically so they can determine if they are allowed to have short-term rentals. As of Jan. 26 the map had been accessed 964 times. That figure was update to 1,492 people accessing the map before the meeting.

“So, we definitely have some folks that are interested in their properties and whether they are allowed to have short-term rentals,” Giebel said at the work session.

The listening session had some lighter moments. When a resident mentioned prostitution associated with rentals on a street, an owner of short-term rentals had an inquiry.

“The lady with the prostitute problems — what’s your address?” he asked, drawing laughter.

As he continued to inject humor into his remarks, Bramley joined the fun.

“We probably should have televised this,” she said.