City Council hears first reading of rental ordinance

Lance Shearer
Golden sky over City Lights across Factory Bay in Marco Island.

At the City Council meeting on Monday evening, the island’s newly approved short-term rental ordinance, or STR, dominated the discussion. Once preliminary matters were concluded, the council got into dealing with the measure, which was passed by Marco Island’s voters with 56.9 percent of the vote in August but does not take effect until after a first and second reading to the council, and with the chance for councilors to tweak or amend it.

Councilor Rich Blonna took the first crack at the ordinance, questioning the substitution of the word “sound” for the word “noise” but there was protracted discussion of many aspects of the STR, both from members of the council and members of the public, which consumed the majority of the session.

Chairman Erik Brechnitz pointed out that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in two and a half minutes, and that “just about everything has been said” on the ordinance, but that did not stop speakers from taking their turn. Unlike many issues before the council in which one side is up in arms and clearly owns the mood in the council chamber, both “yes” and “no” proponents were well represented, with outbursts of applause for contrasting statements.

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In citizen comments, Ed Issler said 80 municipalities in Florida have similar ordinances, “many stricter than Marco Island,” and the proposed STR is “very very very workable.” Jay Benedetti said the vote has been taken, it’s a done deal. Martin Winter warned of huge legal costs to the city for the “biggest piece of garbage ordinance ever.”

Howard Reed said the vote showed that the majority of people on the island “want something done – let’s move forward and implement it.” He called for the possibility of anonymous complaints without fear of retribution.

Each of the councilors opined on the STR before the introduction of a flurry of motions. Vice Chair Jared Grifoni led off, pointing out that the ordinance the citizens voted to approve had been voted down by City Council, in a 4-3 vote. “We still don’t have something legally valid,” he said. “What we have is unenforceable,” probably in violation of Florida and U.S. constitutional law. The ordinance, he said, was a “bizarre concoction cobbled together,” and never properly reviewed.

Councilor Greg Folley expressed concern for pulling homeowners’ rights away with no warning, under the subordination clause, and engaged City Attorney Alan Gabriel in a discussion of restricting the STR to just one specific zoning district and having different rules for homes when being used as a rental.

Councilor Rich Blonna said he disagreed about the necessity of starting again from square one. The City Council failed, he said, and “citizens took matters into their own hands.” If the ordinance was good enough for the Collier County Board of Elections and the Supervisor of Elections, “it’s good enough for me.”

Councilor Becky Irwin said she would be in favor of regulation similar to Collier County’s but raised the specter of a “pretty quick slippery slope” to disabling vacation rentals overall. She cautioned against hobbling the island’s number one economic driver in the face of a looming recession and warned illegalities in the STR will lead to lawsuits and high costs.

“I cannot support something this egregious and all-around bad,” she said.

Councilor Joe Rola said the STR was based on the Fort Lauderdale rental ordinance, which has “existed seven years without successful litigation. Let’s go ahead with this slightly modified ordinance,” he urged.

Grifoni made a motion, seconded by Irwin, to have the city attorney bring back two ordinances to the next council meeting, one “bare bones” based on the Collier County framework, and one incorporating most of the island’s STR as written, but it garnered no additional support, and failed 5-2.

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Brechnitz began to offer a motion to remove the subordination clause, but it was superseded by a motion from Folley, with a second from Brechnitz to the same effect, which passed 5-2 with Blonna and Rola dissenting.

A motion from Blonna to accept the STR with the changes made passed 4-3, with Grifoni, Irwin and Councilor Claire Babrowski opposed. Implementation of the ordinance was handled with more dispatch, with Brechnitz pointing out “the implementation plan is really a staff function,” not the purview of the City Council.

On Aug. 12 a group of vacation rental owners and businesses on Marco Island filed a lawsuit to stop the referendum. The 57-page lawsuit is against the city of Marco Island and Jennifer Edwards, supervisor of Elections for Collier County. The suit claimed the item was illegally titled and worded on the ballot, asking voters to approve a rental registration, when in fact they would be approving a complex 17-page ordinance “that will devastate the local economy, create new government agencies, depress housing prices, raise their taxes, and curtail their property rights.” The referendum petition is a clear attempt to thwart short-term rentals in Marco Island under the guise of protecting the welfare of its residents.”

Since the ordinance has been approved, the lawsuit asks that the proposed ordinance be declared invalid and unenforceable under applicable law. If that fails, they ask for compensation for the plaintiffs for the loss of revenue they would incur by possibly not being able to rent their homes.

A short-term vacation rental in the ordinance is defined as any home that is rented for fewer than 30 days, more than three times a year. Many of the homeowners are part- time residents that rent their homes while they are out of town.

One thing is clear – you can’t spell “storm” without STR, and Marco Island has not heard the last of this issue.

Additional reporting by Andrea Stetson.