When construction began near Richard Haynes’s house along Monroe Drive on St. Armands Key, he thought his neighbors were just building a particularly large home.
After a few months, however, Haynes said it became clear something atypical was going on. A review of the plans for the property showed the home not only included seven bedrooms but also that each one of those bedrooms had an attached bathroom.
Haynes came to a conclusion: The home was being built to house large groups of vacationers, rented out on a short-term basis. Those sorts of homes have recently become a source of concern for full-time barrier islands residents. The St. Armands Residents Association calls these properties “hotel houses” and suggests they functionally operate no differently than a hotel, despite existing within residentially zoned neighborhoods.
Those living on St. Armands and Lido Key say the construction of these homes are on the rise, and they fear operators of similar short-term rental properties will increasingly see the islands communities as an area primed for investment.
“We are very concerned that the character of our neighborhoods and our quality of life are being threatened by the rapidly increasing number of these properties,” said Kevin Bales, the president of the St. Armands Residents Association.
On Tuesday, the City Commission heard a presentation from St. Armands residents. After hearing input from the public, the commission expressed a desire to investigate its ability to regulate the construction and operation of the “hotel house” properties, which St. Armands residents defined as rental homes with six or more bedrooms designed to sleep 12 or more occupants.
Although the commission thought residents shared valid concerns, officials expressed some trepidation about moving forward quickly in pursuit of new regulations. That’s because the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit local governments from establishing new regulations on vacation rentals. The bill states property owners have a constitutionally protected right to use their residential property as a vacation rental.
“Vacation rentals are residential in nature, a residential use, and thus permitted in residential neighborhoods,” the bill states.
Still, the commission voted 4-1 to direct the city attorney to investigate the reach — and limits — the city has to control the properties in question.
Chris Goglia, the vice president of St. Armands Residents Association, led the presentation to the commission Tuesday. Following the meeting, he said he was pleased with the commission’s decision because it meant the conversation about large rental houses would continue.
Goglia identified 12 properties on St. Armands and Lido, all affiliated with the same ownership group, that he said either operate as a large rental property or have structures under construction. He thought it was clear that these rental homes have become their own business model, and he doesn’t think it’s one that belongs in island neighborhoods.
“When I look at this diagram, I see commerce,” Goglia said. “I see business activity. And if this diagram doesn’t represent a prohibited commercial use in a residential neighborhood, then nothing ever well.”
Goglia argued the city’s existing definition of a hotel — a building with six or more guest rooms rented to tourists on a daily- or weekly-rate basis with services like linen or maid service — fits these properties. As a result, he was hopeful the city could use regulations already in place to manage the issues residents raised. In previous interviews, however, city staff has indicated a belief that enforcement could be challenging.
The lone dissenting vote Tuesday came from Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, who placed the item on the agenda. She said she wanted the city to take more ambitious steps, including researching the city’s ability to limit the number of bedrooms in certain properties or to require inspections of vacation rentals.
At the request of Commissioner Hagen Brody, the city attorney will also investigate the city’s legal authority to regulate homesharing. Brody has previously advocated for more relaxed rules for vacation rentals when the homeowner is living on the property being rented.
After the presentation from St. Armands residents, Commissioner Willie Shaw encouraged the speakers to reach out to state officials to make the same case against “hotel houses” — because he feared the city might otherwise be limited in its ability to take action.
“We’re going to need your support in giving calls to your legislative body to do just what you’re doing here,” Shaw said.