After a year's wait ... more waiting

City commission stalls residents' request for swift action to reduce the impact of large, short-term rental properties on Lido and St. Armands Keys

Near the end of 2019, residents of St. Armands and Lido Keys went to the Sarasota City Commission to express alarm over the rapid proliferation of large (six- to eight-bedroom, sleeping 20+) short-term vacation rentals being developed in their residential neighborhoods, which were causing noise, parking and safety issues. As occurred on Anna Maria years ago — where such “hotel houses, “ as they have been dubbed, eventually squeezed out families and full-time residents — they feared that, without restriction, the commercialized properties would irrevocably change the culture of their neighborhoods and end their sense of community.

This week, more than a year later, the commission took three and a half hours to hear comments from residents and consider an ordinance drawn up by City Attorney Robert Fournier that would create a city registration program for such short-term vacation rentals, set an occupancy limit, and hold off-site property owners accountable for noise, parking, garbage and other violations.

The lengthy document wasn’t perfect; it called for an eight-year “phase-in” and most egregiously, limited enforcement to single family residential zones when more than half of the properties currently operating are located on a section of Lido Key that is zoned multi-family residential. But it was, after a long wait, a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, that first step wasn’t taken. By a vote of 3 (Mayor Hagen Brody, Erik Arroyo and Kyle Battie) to 2 (Liz Alpert and Jen Ahearn-Koch), the Commission decided not to advance the ordinance to an immediate (and required) second reading, but instead to continue the first reading in March or April, while instructing Fournier to do more research.

Ahearn-Koch (who, from the discussion, appeared to be the only commissioner who had actually read every word of the 122-page ordinance) encouraged her colleagues to move to a second reading and to add amendments to address the zoning issue and drop the “phase in” for developers who “flip” properties. Alpert also said she was in favor of “keeping this moving forward.”

But Brody, who seemed a bit testy about the whole discussion (“’Hotel houses’ is term invented by the opposition; they should be referred to as ‘large vacation rentals’”) expressed reluctance to implement a comprehensive registration program due to cost and “unintended consequences.”

Most of the new “hotel houses” constructed on Lido and St. Armands’ Keys have outdoor pool areas and upper level decks that have contributed to residents’ complaints of excessive noise from renters.

Despite continued reiteration that the ordinance would not apply to longer-term rentals, Air BnB’s or “host/owner occupied properties,”  Arroyo raised concerns about the “burden” it would place both on “Mom and Pop” landlords and on the city regarding enforcement.

“I don’t believe this is narrowly tailored enough to address and deter the problem it’s trying to affect,” he said.

In his brief comments, Battie appeared to agree that the properties were “an infringement on the quality of life” of full-time residents and that it was “incumbent on us to take care of our constituents.” Strangely, he then voted with the majority to delay moving the proposal to a second reading.

Chris Goglia, president of the St. Armands Residents Association, which first raised the issue, said he thought the commissioners’ reservations were “fair and reasonable,” but that “time is not on our side.”

In addition to the 13 “hotel houses” currently operating on St. Armands and Lido – almost all owned by the Lido Key Vacation group led by developer Shawn Kaleta – there are at least nine other properties acquired by the same group which are in various stages of development. Kaleta was involved in the surge of similar development on Anna Maria.

A map of large vacation rental properties currently operating or in progress on Lido and St. Armands’ Keys. (Illustration courtesy of St. Armands Residents Association)In the past year, Kaleta’s group has purchased four properties on my street; the newest “hotel house” is located across from my own. By my count, there are just three homes left occupied by single families who are full time residents.

“I believe they will eventually come to realize that an occupancy limit and a rental registration program are the only effective ways to deal with this,” Goglia said. “And I hope they come to terms with the idea that regulating what is effectively commercial activity in a residential neighborhood – which impacts public safety – should be a fundamental responsibility of city government.”

But already some residents, frustrated by the city’s slow response, are considering an alternative,  targeting enforcement and pursuing litigation against the single greatest offending property and its developer. Though expensive and somewhat risky, they feel it would “buy us some time to get the ordinance passed while forestalling new projects,” according to one resident.

It’s no secret that I live on one of the streets in the multi-family residential zone on Lido that has been impacted.  But those who think this is strictly a not-in-my-backyard complaint should know that it’s already too late for a personal crusade to protect my own property.

Kaleta’s group has already purchased no less than four homes on my street, three of which are already operating as rentals. The newest hotel house was built just across from my own and another is planned for a “tear-down” several lots over.

Moreover, when I asked one of my few remaining neighbors why all the Lido Key Vacation properties had “For Sale” signs out front, he told me the developer’s m.o. is to establish the lucrative income stream such a property can provide, and then “flip” it to an absentee investment owner, leaving him with profits to develop additional properties. (Indeed, the property next door to mine was bought and re-sold within 11 months.)

It could easily be another year – or more – before the commission establishes a mechanism that could curtail the impact of such properties, much less curbs future development. That’s if residents can even keep the issue on commissioners’ front burner. By that time, the number of “hotel houses” could easily double.

“I think we need to tackle this as fast as we can and as strong as we can,” Ahern-Koch said, echoing residents’ sense of urgency, “so we don’t end up like Anna Maria island.”