Rentals ruling will be appealed

City Council accepts residents' demands though its chance for success appears slim.

Published May 8, 2007

Heeding residents' demands, the Clearwater City Council will appeal a court ruling that allows some short-term rentals in a residential north beach neighborhood - even though its attorney says it has little chance of winning.

The City Council, accepting that it may have just a 15-percent chance of prevailing, voted unanimously last week to appeal a judge's decision last month that the city had forfeited its right to enforce a short-term rental ban on 31 properties. The reason the judge cited: the city hadn't adequately defined or enforced a ban on the practice until 2003.

"You should appeal for the quality of life and a return to normalcy, " said Jerry Murphy, 73, who has been one of the most vocal residents who have monitored the rental practice for years and addressed the council during Thursday night's meeting.

Residents appearing before the council also urged the members, unsuccessfully, to hire outside counsel for the appeal to the Second District Court of Appeal. But the council said that would have increased legal costs to $20, 000, instead of $2, 000 for using in-house staff.

Neighbors have long claimed the people who vacation for a few days or a week in the affluent community, where home values start at $500, 000, are creating noise, trash and traffic.

The landlords say they're providing rentals the beach lost from condominium development. They also say the income - between $1, 200 to $2, 000 a week - covers rising taxes and insurance costs.

City Attorney Pam Akin admitted the chance of the city winning the appeal "is not real strong" but officials said they wanted to play it through.

"I think we're obligated to appeal this to reach a final conclusion, " council member Paul Gibson said. "We have a very qualified attorney and if we spent $20, 000 I don't know if we'd get a better one."

Assistant City Attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides, who has successfully argued before the Florida Supreme Court, said the statewide average of winning appeals is "about 10 to 15 percent."

Dougall-Sides, who will represent the city, said the staff has not decided what issues to raise yet in the appeal.

David Allbritton, a landlord who leases two homes in the neighborhood, said he isn't surprised the city will appeal, but he doesn't believe it will win.

"Politically, it was the only thing they could do to appease the Clearwater Beach Association, " he said. "(But) I'm glad they aren't spending a lot of my tax money fighting me."

Allbritton said the problems neighbors have cited from the short-term rentals are few and far between and "doesn't have anything to do with us."

Clearwater contends it outlawed short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods decades ago.

But the city's earnest enforcement began around 2003 when short-term rentals exploded on the beach. At that time, the council also better defined the ordinance to ban any rentals of less than 31 days in residential neighborhoods.

Last month, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam sided with landlords of 31 properties who said they'd been renting long before 2003 and said they could continue to do so because the city's enforcement and code had been lax. However, the judge said the ban applied to any other property that started the practice after 2003.