West Palm hotelier nearly ejected from Senate vacation rental hearing

A discussion on vacation rentals at a Florida Senate committee meeting Tuesday sparked some fireworks after a Palm Beach County hotelier was threatened with ejection.

Henry Patel, co-owner of Helen Motel and Apartments in West Palm Beach, was stating his opposition to a proposed merger of two vacation rentals bills when he was cut off mid-remark by the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Lee, R- Thonotosassa.

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Patel objected but Lee – trying to adhere to a timed vote on the bill approved by committee members – closed the forum and asked Patel to step away from the lectern.

When Patel again tried to speak, Lee was curt.

“Mr. Patel, I’ll have you escorted out of here,” he said. “Don’t make me do that.”

The exchange between Patel and Lee capped what had been a long and intense meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, which voted 4-2 to approve SB 1400 by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, after combining it with a bill (SB 1640) sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs but in a way that favored Steube’s effort to pre-empt local regulation of the growing vacation rental industry.

The bill would give the state the power to regulate vacation rentals. Local governments would be prohibited from setting rules regarding the leasing of homes or parts of homes for short-term uses.

Steube said vacation rental properties would be regulated largely like hotels and motels, with owners who hold five or more properties being subjected to twice-a-year inspections by state regulators.

Simmons’s bill would have given the state the authority to handle regulation but permitted grandfathering of vacation rentals ordinances on the books before June 2011. It also would have allowed local governments to conduct safety inspections of vacation rentals just as they do for hotels.

But Simmons fell short on his effort to let cities and counties conduct fire and building-code inspections at the vacation rentals. He warned that a move toward “zero regulation” could lead to consumers being hurt or killed at rental properties. He said allowing local governments to conduct safety inspections offered “a reasonable amount of protection,” while balancing the interests of property owners, consumers and local governments.

Under Steube’s bill, the state would have the right to inspect any property, although only larger rental-property owners would be subject to regular inspections. The bill also would require the property owners to provide emergency numbers to the state that would be shared with local governments.

Simmons was also unsuccessful in arguing that local governments should oversee the rental of single-family homes in residential neighborhoods when owners are not staying at the homes. “These are the ones with the greatest amount of abuse,” he said. He said some of those vacation rentals, where neighbors complain about parking, noise and parties, are destroying the “quality” of single-family neighborhoods.

Both bills are backed by online vacation rental companies, including Airbnb and HomeAway.

In his opening remarks, Steube said his bill was an attempt to replace the hodge-podge of municipal laws regarding vacation rentals with a uniform state policy.

In her statements before the committee, HomeAway lobbyist Jennifer Green agreed that local governments should be able to address whether property owners stay at vacation rentals part-time or full-time.

But neither local government advocates or hotel industry representatives had praise for Simmons’s or Steube’s bills.

A spokesman for the Greater Miami and The Beaches Hotel Association said the bill that advances, Steube’s bill, “goes too far” while Casey Cook, senior legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities, questioned how the state would handle noncompliant property owners.

“At its core, we believe this is a zoning issue,” he said.

In a separate interview, Patel said he supported Simmons’ bill but thinks it would be a mistake to give the state sole responsibility to regulate vacation rentals as is done in Steube’s bill.

He pointed to the state’s handling of serial ADA lawsuits filed against businesses in recent years an example.

“How are they going to monitor this?” he said. “It’s totally unfair to an industry that’s played by the rules for 50 to 60 years.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

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