County Council

An already combustible issue became even hotter March 16, as the Volusia County Council changed its collective mind and decided to crack down, after all, on short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.

“What are we doing? We’re flip-flopping,” County Council Member Heather Post said. “I don’t like flip-flopping.”

Two weeks earlier, the County Council had addressed the long-simmering and divisive issue and decided to form a committee of people from both sides to study the problem and propose solutions. Until that committee could report back at the end of April, the County Council said, enforcement of the current ban would be suspended.

Now that’s no longer the case.

The issue pits property owners — who want to make money by renting their homes to visitors for a few days and nights, especially during special events such as NASCAR races — against their neighbors — who object to rowdy and disruptive intruders who bring too many cars and noise and leave too much trash and debris.

Mindful of passionate feelings on both sides, County Chair Jeff Brower expressed hope for goodwill from people who can “sit down and recognize each other as worthwhile human beings.”

Currently, the county’s zoning code — which applies only in the unincorporated portions of Volusia County, not in cities — bars rentals of homes in residential districts for stays of less than 30 days.

Homeowners who rent space in their dwellings to visitors and vacationers may be subject to code-enforcement action, which could result in steep fines. The zoning law treats properties attracting visitors as hotels or motels, and those buildings are allowed only in commercial districts.

The earlier plan fell apart when it came time for County Council members to appoint members to the planned committee.

Council members agreed to set the size of the committee at seven, and agreed that at least five of the seven should be residents or property owners within the unincorporated area. The council also called for a facilitator to guide the committee’s discussions.

But County Council members said they had not had sufficient time to review the applications of those volunteering to serve, and applications were still coming in. The council settled on March 31 as the deadline for prospective committee members to apply.

Suddenly, while considering the work of the yet-to-be-appointed panel and the Florida Legislature’s possible measures to regulate short-term rentals, the County Council voted to end its March 2 suspension of enforcement of its zoning ban on short-term rentals.

Council Vice Chair Fred Lowry moved to end the suspension and “resume normal code enforcement.”

The abrupt change in policy, passed with a 4-3 vote, comes just as many homes are already lodging visitors for Bike Week and Spring Break, which may create awkward situations for property owners who could be cited for zoning violations.

“I think it sends a very bad signal,” Post said, after she voted against ending the enforcement suspension.

“We said May 1st, and now we’re changing it,” she also said.

“People are going to walk out of this meeting not knowing what in the world has happened to them,” Brower said. “What we did today was wrong. We have jerked people around.”

Brower warned the county may face lawsuits from homeowners who, based on the earlier suspension of enforcement, may have to evict their paying guests. Nevertheless, Brower said, he and his colleagues still intend to form the committee on short-term rentals.

“It’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with government,” Council Member Danny Robins said. “That’s our fault.”

Robins joined Brower and Post in supporting the suspension, but the majority — Lowry and Council Members Barb Girtman, Ben Johnson and Billie Wheeler — prevailed.

“I’m not happy with today’s vote, either,” Johnson said, adding he had also originally opposed suspending enforcement.

Shortly afterward, Assistant County Attorney Heather Wallace said the situation may not be as dire as it seems.

“Before someone gets fined, there is a process,” she said. “The complaint is investigated to make sure it is a founded complaint, and if it is, code complaints go before the Code Board.”

That panel, she added, has the power to set a fine — or even to drop the case altogether.