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Longboat Key Thursday, Sep. 12, 2019 1 month ago

Settlement accepted in Longboat Key's short-term rental lawsuit

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The defendants admitted to violating town code.
by: Sten Spinella Staff Writer

Longboat Key is serious about its short-term rental ordinance. 

That's the impression leaders consciously gave before, during and after filing a lawsuit against Equity Villa Fund LP and Equity Residences LLC over the short-term rental of its home at 537 Schooner Lane. With the lawsuit, the town essentially sought a court order forcing Equity to comply with its rules barring rentals of less than 30 days in residential neighborhoods.

On Monday, Town Commissioners signed off on Equity's settlement offer.

"If you don't enforce this, it has the potential to change the character of the community," Town Manager Tom Harmer said.

For town leaders, the situation at 537 Schooner put the very integrity of Longboat at stake. 

John Long signed the agreement as managing member of Equity Residences, Equity Villa Fund’s general partner, agreeing to pay $3,640 to the town as a compromise for $6,250 in fines levied against the property and for litigation costs to the town. When filing the suit, Longboat Key set out to simply force the owner to stop breaking the rule, not to seek damages.

Long said ownership of the property has been misunderstood; he is personally an owner of the house along with a small group of other families. 

"We're almost seen like Darth Vader owns this property and it's this evil empire that's controlling this asset on Longboat Key, but that could not be further from the truth," Long said. "We use this residence to vacation with our extended families, and we enjoy the community, and we've always tried to be good members of the community."

He said the property was rented when the owners weren't there to help pay the property taxes, which county records indicate amounted to $12,864 in 2018. 

"We're almost seen like Darth Vader owns this property and it's this evil empire that's controlling this asset on Longboat Key, but that could not be further from the truth." – John Long

Long said it's the defendants' opinion that the town's code is poorly written, subject to interpretation, violates property rights and likely contradicts Florida state law. So, then, why settle? 

"Because we're a small group of families, we don't have the resources to fight the city," Long said. "The city has lots of resources and wanted to litigate this. Because the ordinance has lots of different interpretations, we were sort of a guinea pig for them to set a precedent."

Long is now selling the home, and he said he doesn't feel welcome in town. The four-bedroom, two-bath abode, built in 1962, is listed for $1,099,000.

Commissioners on Monday were complimentary of Mooney's work on the suit, although Mayor George Spoll said he would've pressed harder on the business side because of the $10,000 the town paid to execute the lawsuit and the $6,250 in original fines. But he was the dissenting voice among the majority of commissioners who supported the settlement.

"If you don't enforce this, it has the potential to change the character of the community." – Tom Harmer

"This is the best investment the town of Longboat Key has made," Commissioner Irwin Pastor said. "For $16,000 or more, this by far is the greatest return this town has gotten on an investment. Kudos."

In a memo to the town, Mooney wrote the case should be considered a victory and, “The disposition of this case establishes a judicial precedent upholding and enforcing Section 158.144 of the Town’s Zoning Code.”

For town leaders, the situation at 537 Schooner put the very integrity of Longboat at stake. 

"As we have seen to the north of us in Anna Maria, short-term rentals do not enhance neighborhoods," Planning & Zoning Board Chair BJ Bishop said. "They do not enhance property values, and it tends to deteriorate both the property value and the quality of life in those neighborhoods."

Sten Spinella is a Town Hall Reporter for the Longboat Observer. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut and his master's degree from the University of Missouri. 

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