Rentals steal the show: Council debates seeking outside legal opinion on residential rentals

Lance Shearer

The issue of residential rentals, whether short-term or otherwise, is far from resolved, but never far from the thoughts of island residents.

At Monday evening’s City Council meeting, without rentals even being on the agenda, and at the end of a coccyx-crushing marathon of meetings, the question boiled up, and provided the most spirited debate of the session.

More:A long day: Council packs three meetings into one Monday

Councilor Claire Babrowski got the ball rolling during the council communications section of the meeting, suggesting that the council take up the suggestion that had been made to seek an outside attorney’s advice on the legality of renting residences on the island.

“I want to ask the city attorney to seek another legal opinion on rentals,” to break what she called a “logjam” on the question, said Babrowski. As of now, the situation has devolved into a “is too – is not, is too – is not” back and forth, which “stands in the way of citizens who want answers.”

 She acknowledged Chairman Jared Grifoni’s concern about “lawyer shopping,” but said the “fundamental disagreement on what our legal position causes us not to be able to move forward” on how to manage the issue.

Marco Island residents, she said, keep coming before City Council during public comment to say the city is doing nothing, she said, although “I know in fact, the city’s done a lot.”

Regular citizen commenter Ed Issler had earlier noted that council’s intent to hear a recap of the rental situation during their upcoming July 19 meeting conflicted, in his opinion, with their previously stated choice of waiting until the end of the summer to revisit the issue.

More:Summer events from the Marco Island Historical Society

Councilor Joe Rola had previously and repeatedly expressed the view, in council discussions and newspaper op-eds, that in the great majority of residential neighborhoods on the island, on the theory that under the city’s land development code, “anything not allowed is prohibited,” which would seemingly ban all rentals, including annual leases.

Babrowski specifically excluded Florida’s attorney general as being among attorneys whose views on the matter should be sought, in a desire to keep politics out of the issue. The view in Tallahassee, she said, is “the state of Florida is open for tourism,” and any municipality seeking to limit that in any form was unlikely to find a receptive ear.

Councilor Erik Brechnitz supported the idea of outside legal advice, while pointing out that having the opinion didn’t mean the council would have to follow it. “I particularly don’t want to do anything. We can control it the way we’re doing it,” but “I think it would put a lot of this stuff to rest,” he said.

Vice chairman Greg Folley illuminated what that “stuff” consists of.

“There is an underlying boiling cauldron about this issue, and a belief there is some conspiracy going on to subvert the will of the people … I know there’s not,” he said, but “another opinion would help.”

“This is lawyer shopping,” said Grifoni. “I really don’t see what we’re going to gain. Rentals are not illegal on Marco Island – they never have been. The underlying movement is an effort to ban rentals on Marco Island. If we can’t rely on the opinion of the city attorney, we’ve got a much larger problem.”

“I think we’re being accused of hiding behind legal opinion,” said Brechnitz.

City Attorney Alan Gabriel did offer one opinion. “I believe you are going down a path that will not satisfy anyone. If someone had sued us,” he added almost wistfully, we could have a case brought forward. “You give me direction, and I will follow it.”

More:Survey says? Council prepares to poll Marco Island employees, citizens

Rola recapped his position. “We do not accept residential rentals except in the RT district. Our LDC is structured that way since 2001. There are four uses. Rentals is not one of them, therefore not legally valid.”

Council is scheduled to hear a staff report on the issue on July 19 and consider further action “after the summer.”