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After hours of listening to an overflow crowd speak for and against short-term rentals, the Volusia County Council March 2 opted to form a committee to help resolve the contentious issue.

“I believe there is a solution,” County Chair Jeff Brower said.

The key question is whether private dwellings, such as single-family homes or condominium units, may be rented to visitors for stays of a few or several days. 

Supporters of short-term rentals say homeowners have a right to use their property to earn extra income, while detractors say the visitors too often bring noise, trash, traffic, parking problems and unseemly behavior into otherwise peaceful neighborhoods. 

Also, such rental arrangements may be unfair competition for established hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments.

The dilemma for the leaders was summed up by County Council Member Barb Girtman.

“I’m a Realtor. I understand property rights. As a homeowner, I don’t want to be in a transient area,” she said.

Where the issue exists

The controversy before the County Council is in the unincorporated areas, because the cities already regulate rentals within their bounds.

The rule in place now restricts short-term rentals only to property where a hotel or motel could be built.

“Short-term rentals of residential structures for periods of less than 30 days are treated as hotel/motel uses,” Volusia County Growth and Resource Management Director Clay Ervin told the council.

So, currently, short-term rentals may be allowed only in the following business and commercial zoning categories: 

— B-6, along highways or at interchanges;

— B-7, a commercial marina;

— B-8, a tourist district.

The zoning law also allows short-term rentals or hotels in the B-4, or general commercial, zones if the County Council grants a special exception. 

The law “prohibits short term or vacation rentals in all residential categories,” according to the county.

Nevertheless, short-term rentals have sprung up in residential areas over time. The county’s code-enforcement arm has extended to crack down on some of the more egregious nuisances.

“We did receive some serious complaints about a year ago,” Ervin said.

Not an easy situation to deal with                                                 

Leaders are grappling with the polarizing problem.

“This has been one of the more emotional issues that I’ve seen on the council,” Council Member Ben Johnson said. “Can we regulate how many cars? Can we regulate how many people are in a home?”

Many complaints and counterarguments were aired before the council.

“Volusia County has 18,000 hotel rooms,” Jonathan Abraham Eid said, in opposition to short-term lodging. “The hotel owners pay their taxes. … There are hotels in the entire country that are closing up shop.”

A New Smyrna Beach area resident said a neighbor’s home became “a party house.”

“They were jumping off the roof into the pool,” he said. “This is a quality-of-life issue. … Hotels and motels are for tourists. Homes are for residents.”

“There’s six cars. There are 20 people in this house,” another resident, John Rappold, told the County Council, holding up a photo of a neighbor’s home. “This is not a code-enforcement issue; this is a sheriff’s issue. … There’s trash everywhere. It sits there for a week.”

On the flip side, one woman in tears appealed for the opportunity to share her home with vacationers.

“Our renters are families. It is not a party house,” she said.

A Bethune Beach homeowner who also has rental homes spoke in defense of his tourism venture.

“We enjoy welcoming people to our beautiful beaches,” he said. “Bethune Beach has been renting homes for almost 40 years plus, actually. … Have property values decreased? There is no evidence that short-term rentals are a detriment to any beachside community or any community, for that matter.”

Many of the problems in beach neighborhoods, he said, are likely caused by “day-trippers from surrounding areas, not renters.”

Relief for Bike Week, Race Weeks

People for and against short-term rentals have repeatedly called for the council to act, and the latest meeting was supposed to be the time for a solution. Opponents have called for the county to enforce its laws and shut down what they deem businesses in a neighborhood. Those in favor of short-term rentals say they are bringing cash into the local economy and the county’s coffers. The visitors pay tourism and convention taxes, sales taxes and gasoline taxes, and patronize local businesses.

At this writing, there is no change in the matter.

To the delight of property owners welcoming visitors for NASCAR races and Bike Week, and to the chagrin of neighbors feeling their lives are being disrupted, the County Council last month ordered a moratorium, or suspension, of code enforcement against short-term rentals in residential zones. At the end of the day, the council left the moratorium in place, pending the Legislature’s action.

“I don’t think we can move forward when we don’t know what we’re moving forward on,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS — An example of the search results on the short-term rental website, Airbnb, for the DeLand area. For the example search, which did not specify a date, there were 276 results.

West-side story

Though the issue is mostly a concern in the coastal areas, it has countywide repercussions, including in West Volusia, where accommodations in residential neighborhoods may be more needed to support tourism.

“I’m definitely keeping up with this issue,” West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority Executive Director Georgia Turner told The Beacon. “During our Crappie Master tournament, we had some people who were staying in rental homes and Airbnb.”

“We only have about 1,200 hotel rooms [in West Volusia],” she said, adding the short-term rentals “are part of our accommodations mix.”

Turner also said she watched the four-hour drama play out before the County Council via livestream on the county’s government’s website.

Regulation by the state

Besides the local division of opinion on short-term rentals, there is another factor from higher up. 

The ability of the county and the municipal governments to regulate short-term rentals may be further complicated by a bill now pending in the Florida Legislature. CS/HB 219, if enacted, would preempt local governments from regulating vacation rentals and “advertising platforms” such as Airbnb. The bill proposes to bar local governments from charging fees or fines to regulate short-term rentals.

However, Volusia County would be exempt from the bill because its ordinance on such rentals was passed in 2004, and thus it would be “grandfathered” before the 2011 date set in the bill. 

Upon the advice of its attorneys, the County Council made no changes in its short-term rental ordinance, because a change may be interpreted in Tallahassee as a repeal, and thus the county may stand to lose its authority to regulate the temporary-lodging arrangements.

Assistant County Attorney Paolo Soria is among those monitoring the movement of the bill in the state Capitol.

“We prefer local control,” Soria said.

The Florida Legislature’s annual 60-day session began March 2 and ends April 30.

Meanwhile, the County Council agreed to appoint a committee of people with different opinions on short-term rentals in the hope of finding a compromise amenable to both sides.

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