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Published January 23, 2021 in The St. Augustine Record. By Sheldon Gardner. Read the full article here.

Officials grapple with vacation rentals

Barbara and David Goldberg moved to their Anastasia Island home more than 10 years ago looking for a quiet residential area, and they found it.

But the spread of vacation rentals in St. Johns County in the past few years has affected them negatively, bringing large crowds, events and noise to the neighborhood, they said. The county government’s current approach to addressing complaints hasn’t brought relief, and they said they’re hoping more regulations will be put in place soon.

“You basically work all your life. You save your money. You retire from your job. You move to your dream home to a desired residential area,” David Goldberg said to St. Johns County’s Planning and Zoning Agency. “Then you find, as we did 10 years later, the house next door is sold. It’s revamped. … The house is now a mini hotel. It ruins your dreams. It ruins your quality of life.”

Local governments are trying to address complaints about vacation rentals through new regulations, attempting to strike a balance between respecting property rights and protecting quality of life. St. Johns County has an ordinance on the way, and the city of St. Augustine has already begun enforcing new rules.

Some say that the number of vacation rentals is turning residential areas into commercial enterprises, with companies buying up properties in neighborhoods to create “mini hotels.” People complain of big beachside homes packed with guests that cause noise and parking issues.

But some vacation rental operators say they run a tight ship and take care not to disturb neighbors. Some even live on the same property as their rentals and use vacation rentals to supplement their incomes.

Jamie Williams and her husband are part owners of the five-bedroom vacation rental property next to the Goldbergs, though they manage the rental entirely. She said they take care to watch over the property and be respectful of neighbors and have made adjustments for the Goldbergs, including deciding to stop allowing weddings at the property.

She said there have not been issues with noise, and the characterization of the property as being a “mini hotel” is inaccurate. The couple started using it as a vacation rental in October 2019 on VRBO. It has only been rented by 12 groups since then, she said.

“12 groups in a year and a half is not a mini hotel,” she said.

Renters are notified about noise regulations, she said.

“Nothing irks me more than making a neighbor upset,” she said.

Williams and family also stay at the property regularly when it’s not being rented, she said. Williams and her husband, who live in Gainesville, operate other rentals, mainly student rentals, for their business.

The city of St. Augustine Commission approved new vacation rental rules in 2020, including requirements for annual registration, safety, parking and maximum occupancy.

State law prohibits local governments from banning vacation rentals or regulating the length or frequency of stays. In crafting regulations, local governments are trying to avoid property rights lawsuits and create ordinances that will hold up in court if challenged.

St. Johns County is working on its own vacation rental regulations which are expected to go to the County Commission for a vote on Feb. 16.

The Planning and Zoning Agency recently discussed the proposed ordinance, which would require annual registration and inspection of all vacation rentals east of the Intracoastal Waterway, where there are an estimated 2,302 vacation rental units, according to the county.

The maximum occupancy proposed was two people per sleeping room and two more guests per common area, with a maximum possible occupancy of 16 people. But planning board members recommended having a lower maximum occupancy.

County officials are still ironing out the details of the ordinance, and county staff will present a fresh version to the County Commission based on the Planning and Zoning Agency’s comments. The county is working on a registration fee that would cover the cost of administering the program.

One idea was to allow vacation rentals that are already operating outside of what would be allowed in terms of occupancy and parking to continue to operate that way after the ordinance is passed. But board members requested that the language be changed so that existing properties could be gradually brought into compliance over time.

‘Severe interference’

St. Johns County is working on its own vacation rental regulations which are expected to go to the County Commission for a vote on Feb. 16.

The Planning and Zoning Agency recently discussed the proposed ordinance, which would require annual registration and inspection of all vacation rentals east of the Intracoastal Waterway, where there are an estimated 2,302 vacation rental units, according to the county.

The maximum occupancy proposed was two people per sleeping room and two more guests per common area, with a maximum possible occupancy of 16 people. But planning board members recommended having a lower maximum occupancy.

County officials are still ironing out the details of the ordinance, and county staff will present a fresh version to the County Commission based on the Planning and Zoning Agency’s comments. The county is working on a registration fee that would cover the cost of administering the program.

One idea was to allow vacation rentals that are already operating outside of what would be allowed in terms of occupancy and parking to continue to operate that way after the ordinance is passed. But board members requested that the language be changed so that existing properties could be gradually brought into compliance over time.

Board Chair Mike Koppenhafer described the discussion as “a delicate balance between private property ownership rights” and “community rights.”

Meagan Perkins, a Planning and Zoning Agency member, supported lowering the maximum occupancy. She believes allowing a large number of guests in a vacation rental can cause long-term residents to move, she said.

“And then you have even more of a problem because you’re going to have someone who moves in or buys a piece of property that’s next door to a rental, and they’re going to want to do the same thing,” Perkins said.

Board member Richard Hilsenbeck agreed that the maximum occupancy should be lower and said properties should not be grandfathered in for parking and occupancy requirements. He said something needs to be done to protect homeowners.

“They are facing severe interference with their quiet use and enjoyment of their properties, and something needs to be done about that,” he said. “These things do need to be regulated.”

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