CLEARWATER - The City's Municipal Code Enforcement Board, for the first time, heard cases involving violations of Clearwater's rules on the short-term rental of residential property. The hearings, held on August 25, involved properties at 843 and 739 Eldorado Avenue, both owned by John and Christina Richardson.
While these were the first short-term rental cases heard by the Code Enforcement Board, they were by no means the City's first involvement in this issue. Jeff Kronschnabl, Clearwater's Director of Development and Neighborhood services, provided a brief history lesson during the hearing.
The City first became aware of the short-term rental issue, Kronschnabl said, via a phone call he received from a citizen in July 2002. Why, she wondered, did she have to endure a change in neighbors every other weekend? She went on to describe the short-term rental of neighboring homes on North Beach. After determining that rentals of less than 31 days were a clear cut zoning violation, Kronschnabl served a few property owners with a "Notice of Violation" letter. In April 2003, the City made a revision to its zoning ordinance, clarifying certain definitions relating to residential property use. In response, a group of investors filed suit seeking a "grandfathering" right for those properties that had been rented before enactment of the ordinance.
The pending lawsuit and its demand for "grandfathering" played a role in the outcome of both hearings. First, the property owner's attorney, Marian Hale, stipulated that the 739 Eldorado property was in violation of code, and that the violation has been corrected and would not continue. That property was not eligible for inclusion in the investors' lawsuit, Hale said, because it had not been continually rented before enactment of the code revision. The Board accepted Hale's stipulation, but failed to impose any fines should the violations continue.
Hale claimed, however, that the property at 843 Eldorado had been a short-term rental before the City's code revision, and described her intent to file an amendment adding this property to the investors' lawsuit. Hale asked for a continuance of 60 days "because it would be subject to the grandfather provisions of the City Code." But Assistant City Attorney Bryan Ruff argued that 843 Eldorado was sold and changed ownership after enactment of the code revision. The Board voted to hear the case, denying the request for continuance.
As in the case of 739 Eldorado, Hale stipulated that 843 Eldorado is used for weekly rentals, effectively admitting that the code violation exists. However she continued to argue that the property was eligible for "grandfathering" provisions of the City Code. The Board left the "grandgathering" argument for the courts to decide and found the property to be in violation. They ordered that it must come into compliance within 14 days, imposing a fine of $250 per day of non-compliance after that period. But acknowledging the pending lawsuit, the Board also allowed the fine to be held in abeyance if the motion to add this property to the lawsuit is filed within 14 days. To some in the audience, the Board's ruling was flawed; delaying the fine required only filing, not court acceptance, of the motion.
Ultimately, Clearwater's ability to enforce the short-term rental provisions of its code will be decided by the courts. Until then, Kronschnabl intends to preserve the residential character of North Clearwater Beach by bringing more violators in front of the Code Enforcement Board. Kronschnabl said, "Our objective here is to stop this influx of commercial property and rentals into this area. If we allow this to continue, this neighborhood would no longer be considered a neighborhood as defined by HUD." He added, "The word on the street is that the City is going to do nothing and you may continue to buy, rent, purchase and do whatever you want to do because we have this litigation ongoing."
The word on the street should soon be changing.
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