Wellington Tightens Rules On Vacation Rentals

The Wellington Municipal Complex.

The Village of Wellington took a big step this month toward tougher rules for short-term vacation rentals as the industry deals with complaints, backlash from cities and attempts to tighten regulations across the country.

Residents in one Wellington neighborhood, Sugar Pond Manor, “were in here literally crying over the impact these vacation rentals have had on their life, and pleading with us to do something,” Councilman Michael Drahos said in a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The Wellington Village Council voted 5-0 for a slate of revised regulations meant to strengthen the village’s ability to respond to complaints about noise, parking, and even cases involving a shooting and renters knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask about parking in their driveways.

“We have to try something that is firmer, stronger,” Councilman John McGovern agreed.

He suggested, and the council adopted, a further change to allow faster action to suspend or revoke permits in cases involving underage drinking.

Wellington’s actions this month fit into a bigger national picture.

In September, New York City enacted rules that say short-term rental owners must register with the city, limit guests to two and accept other restrictions designed to keep residences from becoming de facto hotels. Some see the short-term rental trend as worsening a shortage of affordable housing for those who want to be full-time residents.

Home-sharing companies often challenge such curbs, but some executives also recognize a growing pile of gripes and pushback, not only from governments, but also users of vacation rental services.

Beefs range from a perceived lack of transparency about rising “cleaning fees” and other stealth costs for renters, to calls for better vetting and safeguards to enforce company policies against rentals becoming party houses.

“We need to get our house in order,” Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky told Bloomberg News in early October.

In Florida, there are limits on what municipalities can do. Under state law, local governments cannot prohibit vacation rentals, or regulate their frequency and duration. However, governments are exploring what they can do within those boundaries.

Wellington has about 250 short-term vacation rentals within its borders, typically meaning rentals of 30 days or fewer at a time. The new rules are not aimed at months-long seasonal rentals associated with the equestrian industry, officials said.

While many short-term rentals pose no problem, a handful of repeat offenders have pushed the village to consider more ways to take action, staff members said.

One point of emphasis has been making clear that the village holds the homeowner responsible for what renters do. For example, a new amendment requires owners to post a notice, provided by Wellington, of the applicable regulations.

Discussion included questions about due process and fairness to owners.

“Looking at it from the owner position, how would they know that was happening?” Mayor Anne Gerwig asked. “Are we making them guilty of something they might not be aware of?”

Planning, Zoning & Building Director Tim Stillings replied, “Well, they’re taking responsibility for actions that occur on their property.”

The amendments spell out prohibitions against parking vehicles on a lawn, swale, landscape area, sidewalk or other public right-of-way.

Homeowners who want to rent out units for short-term rentals will have to pay a one-time $600 fee for a special use permit.

In addition, the village aims to streamline rules to allow officials to issue a citation without a warning or delay.

Violations can be punished by fines of $125 per day, with possible suspension or revocation of permits for repeated violations, or in cases involving injury, drugs or prostitution.

Gerwig asked if the homeowner’s permit could be revoked based solely on a charged offense, not yet formally proven.

As allowed under the revised rules, appeals can be made to the village’s special magistrate, Village Attorney Laurie Cohen explained.

The problem with waiting is that it could take months or years to resolve such charges formally, and village officials worry that could leave the door open to recurring problems that go unresolved, Village Manager Jim Barnes said. A series of different short-term renters could be coming and going while it all plays out.

Stillings emphasized that his office would have discretion whether to apply stronger sanctions, based on the context and circumstances. He said he would consult with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office — expected to be a primary enforcer along with village code enforcement — to determine the seriousness of each case. One council member asked about a visitor found to be holding a small amount of marijuana, for instance.

Wellington’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board approved many of the rules changes on a 5-1 vote in September.

Tweaks since that meeting include provisions allowing a local responsible party to accept citations on behalf of property owners and establishing that owners may be sent citations through certified mail.