Airbnb ban? Lake Worth Beach prepares for possible crack down on illegal short-term rentals
LAKE WORTH BEACH is taking a serious look at reviving a seldom-enforced municipal law that could effectively shut down hundreds of Airbnbs, Vrbos and other short-term rental properties across the city.
But before staff starts cracking down, city commissioners want a better understanding of how they would go about effectively enforcing the law — and whether that will require neighbors to rat out neighbors, which may make many residents uncomfortable.
At a special meeting Feb. 9, commissioners said they like short-term rentals and would prefer having the ability to regulate where and how they operate in Lake Worth Beach.
But they can’t do that because of a 2011 state law that gives broad protections to short-term rentals and prevents local municipalities from banning them or limiting the length and frequency of stays.
Lake Worth Beach, though, has one tool on its books that’s exempt from the state law — a municipal law, passed years before the state legislation took effect, that limits vacation rental stays to no less than 60 days.
The city has rarely enforced that law over the last 10 years, even as a proliferation of short-term rentals popped up across Lake Worth Beach. And because of the state law, the city’s codes and land development rules have not been updated to recognize the existence of the estimated 500 short-term rentals operating in the city (a number that can rise to 1,000 on any given day during tourist season).
Although they’re operating illegally, short-term rentals offer valuable lodging options for visitors to Lake Worth Beach, a city with no downtown hotel. They also provide a business option and a valuable income source for property owners.
But they’ve also brought complaints in recent years about noise, parties, trash, parking and the erosion of traditional residential neighborhoods. Another concern is a belief that short-term rentals cut into the supply of available long-term rental properties, exacerbating the city’s affordable housing crisis.
Those pros and cons were aired by a parade of homeowners at the Feb. 9 special meeting where commissioners debated two basic options: Start enforcing the 60-day rule or abolish the 60-day rule and allow short-term rentals to operate with new rules giving the city limited oversight.
A shared frustration among commissioners is the state law that gives broad protections to short-term rentals. A majority of commissioners were not comfortable giving up the city’s “grandfathered” 60-day rule, especially since any new measures Lake Worth Beach might enact would have no impact on regulating where and how short-term rentals operate.
Homeowners come to Lake Worth Beach with “a reasonable expectation that there's not going to be a cement plant next to you because it’s a residential neighborhood, there is not going to be a hotel next to you because it’s a residential neighborhood,’’ Commissioner Christopher McVoy said.
Until state lawmakers give municipalities more home rule authority, city commissioners are reluctant to surrender what they consider their lone weapon for protecting residential neighborhoods from being taken over by short-term rentals.
“It’s not that I don't want (short-term rentals) anywhere. I would love to have the ability to govern and do what's best for our city instead of having the state take it away,’’ said Commissioner Kim Stokes.
“Until the state gives us control back, I don’t feel comfortable getting rid of the 60-day minimum,’’ said Stokes, whose opinion is shared by McVoy and Commissioner Reinaldo Diaz.
Those three commissioners were not sympathetic to concerns by Mayor Betty Resch and city staff about the prospect of suddenly having to crack down on hundreds of illegal short-term rental properties.
Although no formal vote was taken Feb. 9, commissioners directed staff to present a plan for enforcing the 60-day limit. If an enforcement plan is put into action later this year, short-term rental property owners will be given a courtesy notice at least 120 days in advance.
William Waters, the city’s community sustainability director, said the city has been approached by companies offering to manage short-term rental properties. He wondered if one of those companies might be willing to work as a consultant to help identify the location of short-term rentals and distribute “courtesy notices.”
Commissioner Sarah Malega wondered if the city could be exposed to legal action from short-term rental property owners suing the city for putting them out of business.
“If we do keep the 60-day ban, then we are saying to people who have Airbnbs that we are going to come and regulate you and make you go away,’’ said Resch.
Resch is skeptical that the city can effectively enforce the 60-day limit.
“Do we call up a renter every 60 days and say, ‘Are you here?’ Do we rely on neighbors diming in neighbors? That's a real question,’’ she said.
“We need to know, really, practically, how will that work? How much will that cost? And how do we prove it? An advertisement on Airbnb or Vrbo is a hint. It's one piece of evidence but we are going to have to have people come in and say, ‘Yes, I live next door and it’s an Airbnb.’ Do we have staff sitting and taking photographs of license plates every week? How do we prove it?’’
Commissioners noted with frustration that Miami Beach is able to enforce a municipal law prohibiting short-term rentals from residential areas. But that law was passed in 2010, a year before the state law took effect.
Commissioners urged residents with concerns about short-term rentals to reach out to their state representatives for help.
Ideally, McVoy said, “Tallahassee comes to reasonable senses as legislators and come up with something where they say, ‘Different communities work different ways. ‘We’ll let you figure it out.’’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.
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