St. Augustine is facing a wave of legal pressure over its vacation rental regulations.
The city adopted a series of rules for short-term rental operators this year but has yet to begin enforcing the rules. The city plans to start collecting fees and begin enforcing the rules in October.
But the city is facing dozens of lawsuits from property owners who are opposed to the regulations, said Attorney Keith Brady, speaking on The 904 Now online broadcast.
“We’ve already started the process for well over 40 suits, putting them at risk of more than $50 million,” Brady said. “And we’re not going to stop. We’re not going to go away.”
Brady said attorneys are working on cases that have different focuses. One set of cases says the city’s regulations go well beyond what is necessary.
“We were counseled by the nation’s largest property rights nonprofit, and they showed us all the constitutional law to come after the city because whenever you have … regulations that are disproportionate to the goal that you need to accomplish, then it’s unenforceable,” he said. “Put in other terms, you can’t use a sledgehammer to kill an ant.
“So when the city says, `Hey, we have a need to regulate this industry,´ we all agree with that. As a matter of fact … I drafted a model ordinance. There’s a lot of things they should be doing and they’re not doing because their goal was to shut it down.”
Other lawsuits will claim the city is regulating more than allowed by state law, and others will look at damage to property value because of the regulations, he said.
The vacation rental issue had been simmering in the city as the number of short-term rentals grow, and people worry that neighborhoods were being turned into business enterprises — there were other complaints as well, such as vehicles cluttering streets, noise and new people coming and going.
Vacation rental operators said most operators care for the city and their neighbors. Some use Airbnb and other hosting companies to supplement their incomes while living on the same property or nearby.
City officials have studied the issue, including what other municipalities have done.
The Commission appointed a committee with representatives from various sides of the issue, including the vacation rental industry and city residents who don’t operate rentals, to come up with suggested regulations.
The city’s rules will require registration and annual inspection, life safety equipment, parking on site unless an alternative plan is approved and someone assigned to quickly respond to complaints, among other requirements. The city is working on a fee system for registration and inspection.
The city also restated its position, via a new ordinance, that a minimum one-week stay is required in Residential Single Family Zoning Districts 1 and 2, and a minimum 30-day stay is required in Historic Preservation-1 zoning.
Blake Souder, who operates a vacation rental in Lincolnville, doesn’t believe the city ever had those minimum stays formally adopted.
Souder’s lawsuit in Circuit Court says he “will suffer irreparable harm” and “will be deprived of his right to lawful use of the property without due process of law” if the city’s rules are enforced.
Souder, who is represented by Brady, is seeking the court to determine that the city’s new rules violate state law.
“While it brings us no pleasure to sue the city we love, we do so with the belief our property rights are being violated by the City of St. Augustine,” Souder wrote in an email to The Record.
Tom Day served on the city’s committee that crafted suggested regulations. He helped represent residents on the committee, and he does not operate a vacation rental.
Day said when he first moved to the city about 10 years ago, people got to know just about everybody on the street. As vacation rentals began to increase, that changed.
“The nature of the neighborhood changes,” he said. “You don’t know who your neighbors are.”
Day said he believes short-term rentals are good overall because they give families an opportunity to rent a place during their stay for less than a hotel costs. But some regulation is necessary.
He also added the goal was not to shut down the industry.
Michael Southerland, who has retained legal counsel, said he agrees that some regulation is necessary, but he disagrees with the city’s regulations as stated.
He said “regulations need to be reasonable and not restrictive in the ability for someone to be able to use their property in that way.”
He said vacation rentals are being asked to do things that other properties aren’t, such as providing parking for guests.
Renting the property as a vacation rental provides enough revenue for him and his wife, Amanda, to pay the mortgage on the Victorian home they renovated and now rent out via Airbnb and VRBO, he said.
They have been living in the house next door since 2002 and bought the Victorian they now use as a rental in 2016.
Without their investment, the late 19th century house in Lincolnville would not have a future, he said.
“My wife and I were adamant we weren’t going to tear it down. This house would have got torn down, so we would have lost this architecture. This house was one of four original Victorians on this street, OK. This gingerbread (architectural features) that we saved, this is all original.”
The couple provides onsite parking and makes sure guests comply with regulations and don’t disturb neighbors.
As for concerns about vacation rentals changing the character of neighborhoods, Southerland said St. Augustine has been a tourist town since its founding.
“Lincolnville itself has always had transient housing,” he said.