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Published January 15, 2021 in The Daytona Beach News-Journal. By Mark Lane. Read the  full article here .

Opinion: Florida lawmakers shouldn’t undermine local control on vacation rentals

The Florida Legislature doesn’t go into session until March 2, but committees started meeting this week and bills are being filed.

The early stuff already is happening. And that means local governments around the state can start worrying about what’s ahead in the 2021 session.

Already a bill has been filed to take away local powers to regulate short-term rentals, a longtime hot-button issue in counties like Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns that host a lot of tourists and hold a lot of special events. The bill (SB 522) would resume last session’s fight over Internet services like Airbnb and HomeAway. It proposes taking away local government’s powers to control short-term rentals and would instead move regulation to the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants.

This has been a contentious issue for a decade now with local governments regularly objecting to state encroachment. When somebody uses the internet to set up a Bike Week party house, neighbors don’t pick up their phones to yell at the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants in Tallahassee; they’re on the phone to the local police, the city and county governments regulatory offices, and the people they voted for on county and city commissions.

And that’s just the short-term problem. The longer-term problem for beachside communities is the worry that neighborhoods will go downhill, transforming from year-round quiet residential areas into tourism zones filled with mini-hotels that are only occupied during the season or for special events and then go dark the rest of the year.

People in local governments can tell which parts of their cities would be good hosts for these rentals and which would be destabilized by them. People working in a distant state capital regulatory office will not know that. City planning isn’t their job.

 

A statutory formula cannot take these things into account. People can complain to their city hall about problem rentals. They won’t be able to object to a one-size-fits-all state rulebook.

Gov. Ron DeSantis voiced those exact concerns when a similar bill was considered last year. “We have 22 million people almost. We are a very diverse state. For us to be micromanaging vacation rentals, I am not sure that is the right thing to do,” he said.

But the Tallahassee-knows-best mindset of legislative leaders shows no signs of abating. Also filed early was a bill forbidding local governments from doing anything to “restrict or regulate commerce in the seaports of this state.”

The measure appears aimed at a trio of Monroe County charter amendments placing limits on cruise ships docking in Key West. They passed overwhelmingly. The amendment limiting the number of people who can disembark got 63% of the vote.

This was an overwhelming expression of the will of the people most directly affected by this industry and the crush of passengers disgorged onto their little island. Doesn’t that count for anything?

Expect more attempts to turn the Legislature into everybody’s city hall. It’s become a trend especially in the past two years.

Fortunately, at least a few legislators are tiring of the annual exercise of stripping away local governments’ power to make their own decisions. There’s a bill (SJR 540) by Sen. Gary Farmer, the Senate minority leader, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to require a supermajority vote when the Legislature wants to strip away local powers. Sen. Linda Steward, D-Orlando, filed bills to repeal two of last year’s limits on local governments’ powers.

These are unlikely to go anywhere, but they at least demonstrate some welcome pushback to the Legislature’s habit of rolling over the level of government that’s closest to the people.

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