| Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH — The vacation rental agreement made clear there could be no more than 12 people in the house in West Palm’s Northwood Shores neighborhood and no more than four cars.
But then owner Andy Brandt, who lives nearby, got a call from a neighbor of his house at 201 Flagler Lane in West Palm Beach – cars and people all over the place.
Brandt rushed over to kick out the party-goers. He counted 140 of them. Someone was collecting money at the door for admission and drinks. The renter had six security guards on hand.
The visitors politely cleared out upon Brandt’s request. Then as he waited three blocks away, he said, “all of a sudden I see this caravan of cars coming back around and I said, ‘No that’s not going to happen’ and he whisked them away again.
From the North End to the South to the million-dollar manses of El Cid, West Palm residents find their neighborhoods increasingly populated by short-term renters. With complaints streaming in to city commissioners, officials this week began mulling how to restrict the practice and protect neighborhoods, without overstepping state laws that regulate the business.
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“It says a lot about our community, that people would want to own vacation rentals in our neighborhoods,” Commissioner Christina Lambert said at a Mayor-Commission work session Monday morning. “When it’s handled well, it can improve the neighborhoods but only when either the rental home owners or city ordinances enforce “good neighbor standards,” she said.
Likewise, Commissioner Christy Fox said Airbnbs and other vacation rentals help tourism and provide a service, especially for families who like the convenience of having a laundry room and other comforts of home. But she has fielded calls about renters having parties until 4 a.m., and about one Southland Park home where someone passed out on the front lawn, from an overdose.
How to maintain control without overstepping laws?
Neighbors are at a loss for what to do, Lambert added. They’ve called police. And they’re on a first-name basis with code enforcement officers. The city needs regulations it can enforce, she said.
And the regulations need to restrict unwanted parties while still allowing legitimate events such as fund-raisers, Commissioner Kelly Shoaf said.
City Attorney Kimberly Rothenburg said state law prevents cities and towns from prohibiting vacation rentals, or the frequency of leasing. That doesn’t mean the city can’t regulate activities within the properties, whether limiting occupancy or parking, she said.
Wellington, for example, recently enacted an ordinance that requires the properties to register with the village, and regulates occupancy and overnight parking. Sexual offender lists must be checked, as well, pets must be leashed and the homeowner must be licensed by the state.
Mayor Keith James assigned the attorney to research whether any Florida municipalities had vacation rental regulations that had been tested in the courts.
The issue is more pervasive than many people realize, said Carl Flick, president of the Northwood Shores Neighborhood Association. There are businesses that specialize in renting out homes as party venues, he noted.
“We have a growing problem, where homes are being purchased and turned into vacation rentals in North End neighborhoods at an alarming late.” Some investors are buying homes at such inflated prices that they’re prompted to rent them out for weekends, because that’s when they fetch higher rates to help cover mortgage bills, he said.
The big problem – weekend party renters
Many owner-investors live out of town and turn over responsibility for bookings to Vrbo or Airbnb and rules go unenforced, in Flick’s view. “This problem is every single weekend in Old Northwood.”
He’d like to see minimum rental durations, of anywhere from a week to a month or more, so the cost discourages the weekend party renters. He also supports limiting the number of vacation rentals allowed within a small area, so that a neighborhood doesn’t get overwhelmed by them. His block of 34th Street alone, between Flagler Drive and Poinsettia Avenue, has four rentals, he said.
“The biggest issue is, the neighborhood has turned from a family-oriented neighborhood, which we pride ourselves in,” to one in which many houses and their “mother-in-law cottages” have been converted into short-term rentals,” said Jon Feldman, a steering committee member of the Old Northwood Neighborhood Association. “When you get a lot, you start to lose the essence of the neighborhood.”
Owners stop investing in their homes, he added. “All your neighbors are gone and it’s like living next to a hotel.”
It’s odd that, in a historic neighborhood where every minor change proposed to a home exterior is scrutinized, there’s no restraint on vacation rentals that pack the streets with cars and people, he said.
Some owners subdivide the houses and backyard cottages, which can jack up allowed occupancy to as many as 20 people, he said. On his block of 28th Street, five out of the six homes are short-term rentals, and with the subdividing possibilities, there’s potential for 10 rental units.
Parking becomes a nightmare and so does trash, and there’s no telling who your neighbor is from one weekend to the next, Feldman said.
Commissioner Joe Peduzzi, a lawyer, wondered whether individual blocks could form homeowners associations, with restrictions on home use just as in gated communities.
Rothenburg was skeptical but said she didn’t know. At the mayor’s request, she pledged to research the city’s options.
Brandt, the North End vacation rental owner, said he had a rental agreement and signs that detailed the parking limitations at his house, and an agreement from the renter not to host parties. Only once before, in four years, has he had a problem with noise complaints about a rental, but a rainstorm resolved that, he said.
But one thing’s for sure, he said: You can’t prevent someone from telling you one thing and doing another.
“There is no way a city can regulate if people lie or misrepresents themselves,” Brandt said. “The only thing you can do is tell them they have to leave, which is what I did.”
Dan Pichney, whose condo looks down on Brandt’s rental house, credits Brandt for showing up and addressing the party, which was not his fault and whose size was an anomaly. But Pichney said Wednesday that there have been more than one or two incidents, there. During tourist season, it’s every two or three weeks, he said.
“Even if people are partying during the day and the music is loud and they’re having a good time, I live with it,” said Pichney, 70, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Board. “My problem is when it’s at midnight or 3 a.m. and the music starts blasting, people are intoxicated, so they’re screaming at each other. It’s just out of control.”
Last year he called police one day when he saw teenage girls there with older guys and drinks being served. Police rounded everybody up, contacted the girls’ parents and sent them home, he recalled.
“Police have more important things, to do, let’s be honest,” he added. “I’d rather have them chasing gunshots and assaults rather than this but somebody has to address it.”