The county pressed Rep. Paul Renner and Sen. Travis Hutson to oppose attempts to limit counties' and cities' regulatory ability.
The vacation rental industry hopes to use the upcoming legislative season to roll back legislation that lets Flagler County and other counties and cities regulate vacation rentals.
Hoping to stop those efforts, Flagler County commissioners and government staff met in a workshop with Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner Nov. 20, with about 60 audience members — who were divided about equally on the issue — in attendance.
Flagler County had pushed hard for at 2014 law that allowed cities and counties to set their own regulations for short-term vacation rentals. The 2014 law repealed a previous state law that specifically preempted municipalities from regulating short-term vacation rentals, and Hutson was instrumental in pushing for its passage. But he's warned repeatedly that the politics are changing.
"The writing’s on the wall for changes to be coming in the vacation rental world."
— Sen. Travis Hutson
"The writing’s on the wall for changes to be coming in the vacation rental world," he said.
"We are fighting against both Republicans and Democrats — but mostly I’d say Republicans — who are putting us on an island," added Hutson, himself a Republican. "If there's a way we could find compromise, let’s talk about it."
Renner said some cities' efforts to enact over-reaching regulations or ban rentals entirely are feeding attempts to repeal the 2014 law.
"It gives a lot of wind to the sails for full-on preemption," he said.
Residents who complained about the effects of vacation rentals at the Nov. 20 meeting spoke mostly of the large "McMansions" that are built expressly as vacation rentals to host large numbers of people. County staff showed pictures of some of them, drawn from internet ads, during a presentation at the beginning of the workshop: Two homes advertised 11 rooms, and one noted that its dining room could seat 24.
Rentals like that function like mini-hotels and disrupt neighborhoods with noise and trash, residents said.
"I'll continue to talk to people on both sides of this issue, try to get to the must-haves and can't-haves, and see if there's not more agreement than disagreement on some of these things."
— Rep. Paul Renner
"Online vacation rentals companies do not manage their business. They do not manage the property," said Paul Pershes, president of the Ocean Hammock Property Owners Association. "We are managing their business and get nothing for it. … We don’t want to penalize them. We don’t want their money. We want them to change behavior."
But several owners of more modest rentals said their rentals let them make much-needed extra income.
Resident Douglas Beavan, himself a rental owner, said he wouldn't want to live next to those huge places either.
"But there seems to be a divide between people like myself who have a single-family home that they need to and want to and they should be able to rent out and manage, versus the McMansions at Ocean Hammock, Hammock Beach, Cinnamon Beach," Beavan said. "It’s up to you to allow me to rent my property out — I do want to be regulated, and I do want to pay taxes — while minimizing or mitigating against the — how many bedrooms is it?"
"14," someone interjected.
"That’s ridiculous," he said.
Hutson said Flagler's system seems to be working.
"I think that we want to make sure ... that whatever moves forward, something similar to this Flagler model that seems to be working for the most part is in place," he said.
The county, he said, has spent significant money fighting the issue, and he didn't want to see it wasted. He said he'd done a public records requests for data going back to 2014 on how much the county had spent to lobby on vacation rentals, and the total was $331,408.
"I don't want a law gutted that we worked so hard for," he said.
County Administrator Craig Coffey and County Attorney Al Hadeed said later that day that the number Hutson cited was far too high, and that it included lobbying expenses and travel for other county issues or for instances in which county commissioners or staff traveled to Tallahassee to lobby on vacation rentals alongside a raft of other county issues.
Renner said he'd seen some consensus from speakers on the need for regulation of occupancy levels and regulatory ability.
"It’s all about balance and reasonableness. There's a sweet spot here," Renner said at the close of the meeting. "I think the commission and the staff have done a good job of trying to strike that balance."
But at the state level, he added, "We have to deal with the reality as we find it, and that is to say that we really are looking at something that's going to be more fulsome in the preemption direction than we may want or wish. So I'll continue to talk to people on both sides of this issue, try to get to the must-haves and can't-haves, and see if there's not more agreement than disagreement on some of these things and get to a spot where we can all live with it and we can all deal with the bad actors ... while still allowing people to rent their property, make money, support our businesses and get the benefit of those short-term rentals as well."