Commissioners agree to a registration process that will negate the need for conditional use permits on such rentals

FORT PIERCE – After a marathon discussion, the City Commission here voted unanimously July 19 to approve a short-term rental registration ordinance that will enable Airbnbs to exist in nearly every zoning district and negate the need for the currently required conditional use permits.

The majority of the Planning Board voted on June 14 to recommend approval of the ordinance, with commissioners voting 4-0 on first reading July 6 to approve the document while asking staff to tinker with some of the wording in the interim. During the latest hearing, commissioners expressed concerns about how Airbnb owners would disseminate the city’s new regulation information to each tenant, as well as being able to comply with the one-hour response times to complaints. Mayor Linda Hudson was the first to suggest the owners of such rentals incorporate the regulations into their online advertising.

“It just would be nice to have the actual language if there’s a challenge or there’s a disagreement or a concern about this interpretation,” she said. “As long as everybody knows the rules, we’re being fair to everybody.”

Commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr. agreed but leaned more towards including the information into a good neighbor pamphlet as suggested by both City Attorney Pete Sweeney and City Clerk Linda Cox. The latter had formed part of the Short-Term Rental Task Force, a group consisting primarily of city employees who debated the original ordinance wording over the course of several months.

“I just want to make sure the regulations, the rules, all that stuff is placed in a packet so that the people coming here will know where it’s at and can access it,” Commissioner C. Johnson said. “I think that’s the most important part of this.”

Commissioner Thomas Perona, on the other hand, worried about the one-hour response times to complaints, admitting he was struggling with that requirement. Code Compliance Manager Peggy Arraiz – who also served on the Task Force – attempted to provide the concerned commissioner with details he felt were lacking.

“We had some lively discussions at the Task Force about it,” she said. “We had a lot of discussion of the what-ifs and the different scenarios that could play out. There’s obviously not an answer for everything that could happen, and some examples of a response could be text messages, emails, telephone calls… that type of response. It could [even] be a signed contract for service.”

Commissioner Perona remained unconvinced.

“Since it comes with a consequence, that’s why I think it needs to be tied up a little bit closer,” he responded. “It should be explicit, especially if we’re holding this as the consequence that can cause some type of heartache and hardship and change of managerial oversight. Even if the response is an effort to create a solution to the issue, at least it’s the initiation of doing so and if you can prove that, then I can understand it.”

Commissioner C. Johnson then chimed in, admitted to having “consternation” over landlords having to respond to “cold calls withing one hour.”

“One I’m looking at here is that any and all calls,” he said quoting from the proposed ordinance. “If a person is across the street and they want to call or something of that nature, that binds the management company to get back to them in an hour, or text them back, or respond some kind of way based on whatever inquiry they made?”

Ms. Arraiz responded affirmatively while explaining the city’s planned two-step process on resolving such unanswered complaints.

“Let’s say I receive a complaint that you failed to make a correction,” she said. “I send a notice out to the property owner and to you as the management company and you say, no, no, no, I am fixing it. You provide information – management first reviews it – and if we believe that it’s not sufficient or it hasn’t reached a truly proactive step, then it would go to a special magistrate. The special magistrate has to weigh-in, and she makes that final decision on the weight of the response versus the nature of the complaint.”

While Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson agreed with such potential problems arising from the one-hour response requirement, he also focused on the proposed landlord requirement of having to publish the new regulations as part of a rental unit’s website advertising.

“I brought up Airbnb right now,” he said as he pointed toward his tablet. “That’s one of many, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be the flavor [website platform] of choice. Is there a limitation to advertising, is there a limitation to lines? There could be I guess.”

After the Board finishing questioning staff, Mayor Hudson opened up the meeting to public speakers. The majority of those against the ordinance were either current operators of short-term rentals who’d already paid for their conditional-use permits or residents opposed for different reasons. For his part, local realtor Richard Rylott worried about the one-hour response time, emphasizing that it would affect his rental periods of up to three months as well.

“I manage a few properties myself, and a lot of these people do come here to escape the cold,” he said. “But if I fall asleep, or my phone goes straight to voicemail, to be responsible for an hour is just impossible. I always take care of my clients, but an hour is a little bit extreme.”

Another realtor, Barry Deets, agreed.

“I have major concerns with the issues of line 395 and the any and all calls,” he said. “I think it should be limited to law enforcement [or] Code Enforcement, and not used as a tool at 4 a.m. by neighbors who just want your home to not be able to be rented.”

Mr. Deets also debunked the idea of placing all or part of the ordinance on his online advertising pages, citing the limitations placed on him by the Multiple Listing Service. He preferred the option of a good-neighbor brochure.

“We are limited to 800 characters including spaces on what we can put out there on advertising,” he insisted. “This applies not only to VRBO and Airbnb-type things but also for rentals that are put on MLS. I think the information in the good neighbor brochure is a wonderful idea. I think that some of the advertising issues could be also addressed in that.”

While not expressing his outright opposition or support, Thumb Point Drive homeowner Dave Hicks reminded commissioners that “the majority of people in Fort Pierce don’t want to live next to businesses with various people coming and going.”

“As far as I know, there aren’t any inspections,” he said. “I know in other jurisdictions where I have rental properties, every other year they want to come in and check the electric outlets, make sure the cooling system works, make sure that the address is posted on the mailbox and on the front of the home so that first responders know where they’re coming. So, I think that would be something important to put into the framework.”

The Commission continued its debate after the last public speaker, ultimately voting 4-0 to approve the new ordinance and then voting separately 4-0 to remove short-term rentals from its conditional use permit table on first reading. The Board will hold its second reading on that text amendment Aug 2. The following day, Aug. 3, the new Short-Term Rental Ordinance will go into effect.

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