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Island vacation floats further out of reach; Minimum house rental in Fla. Keys: 4 weeks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CUDJOE KEY, Fla. -- The view is priceless. You can, however, rent it.

For $1,000 a week, Yvonne Richardson's home here has delighted vacationers seeking their own, if temporary, slice of paradise.

It's a simple, two-bedroom place, nothing remarkable until you see the back yard: It's the Atlantic Ocean.

But now, thanks to a new law that has pitted neighbor against neighbor in the normally laid-back Florida Keys, even that fleeting experience of island living is beyond the reach of most vacationers.

The law is intended to curb the number of tourists encroaching on the Keys' vanishing tranquillity.

It bans the rental of homes in most residential neighborhoods for less than 28 days, making that singular mode of relaxation, the beach house, impossible for anyone with less than a month of vacation time.

The ban has outraged the owners and managers of the estimated 8,000 rental homes in the Keys, as well as stores, restaurants and service personnel who depend on a stream of visitors for their livelihood, if not their own mortgages.

"I don't know if we'll be able to keep it if we can't rent it out when we're not here," Richardson said sadly of the house that she and her husband use as a getaway from their home in Ohio several times a year, renting it out the rest of the time.

"We love our little house, but now we may have to put it up for sale."

The ordinance affects unincorporated Monroe County, which encompasses the 120-mile chain of islands that arcs out from the mainland and is enviably situated between the sparkling blue Atlantic on one side and the emerald-tinged Gulf of Mexico on the other.

Low-key Lower Keys

The controversy over the law, though, is particularly contentious here in the Lower Keys, roughly the farthest third of the islands from the mainland.

These are the quiet Keys -- until, that is, you reach the literal end of the road, the raucous Key West.

But except for the town dubbed Margaritaville, the Lower Keys are where tourists and permanent residents come for peace rather than action, days of fishing rather than nights of barhopping.

Unlike the towns above and below them, the Lower Keys have just a few small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, making rental homes a popular option for vacationers.

Rental agents say the law will most affect families, often from other parts of Florida, who come down with their boats, rent a house with a dock and stay for one or two weeks.

Like the Jersey Shore

"This is like the Jersey Shore for Floridians," said Barbara Strong, a transplanted New Yorker who lives on Big Pine Key.

"I've never heard of a resort area discouraging people from coming for a vacation. They just put up a new welcome center on Big Pine.

"Who are they welcoming? Where will they stay?"

"President Carter stayed here on Summerland Key for two weeks a couple of years ago," said Bernie Matthews, a rental property manager.

"I guess he can't come back now."

The law, which went into effect about 1 1/2 months ago after several years of heated debate, is the latest outburst in the growing tensions between tourists and year-rounders in the Keys, as well as other resort areas.

Carmel, Calif., for example, enacted a ban on rentals of less than a month's duration about six years ago, said Jeff Britton, whose family owns a property management company there, and other towns on the northern California coast quickly followed suit.

"It became a domino effect," Britton said. "It's really unfair. Carmel was built as a resort area. People moved here knowing that.

"People move here, then they try to shut the rest of the world out."

The irony, of course, is that in Carmel as well as the Florida Keys, many residents who support limiting rentals were renters once, vacationers who ultimately decided to stay permanently.

"We call it 'pull up the ladder syndrome,' " Christine Sharpe said.

"I'm here, I got mine, I don't care about you."

Decreased business

Sharpe and her parents run Sea Boots Outfitters, a store and charter boat business on Big Pine Key, and already they're noticing a decline in traffic in the store.

A fellow charter boat captain, Mike Weinhofer, dropped by on a recent afternoon to commiserate.

"I've lost a bunch of charters," said Weinhofer. "People who have fished with me for years are calling and saying they can't rent here and they can't afford the hotels in Key West."

But those who support the rental ban say it's time to tighten the lax laws that allowed desirable places such as the Keys to become overrun and overpopulated.

"We're at the eleventh hour. It may already be too little too late," said Keith Douglas, a former Monroe County commissioner who voted for the rental limit.

"But at what point are we jeopardizing our ability to protect the environment and the quality of life here?"

Tourists, supporters of the law say, encroach on the Keys' fragile environment, limited water supply and the vanishing quietude that brought many of them here.

"You would get multitudes of strangers in your neighborhood. The Realtors would let four, five families into a single home. Nobody had any peace and quiet," said Gene Paxton, a retiree on Cudjoe Key who favors the law.

"The public at large believes we owe them a place to vacation. This is not a vacation area."

Spying on neighbors

The controversy over the law has sharply divided individual neighborhoods, even streets.

One vocal supporter of the ordinance has encouraged people to spy on rental houses on their block and report any possible violations.

"Those who are tired of this rental harassment can take action by writing down tag numbers of cars at these rentals and by keeping a record of how many people and how many different times they are rented," Charles Mills, a Summerland Key resident, once advocated in a guest column in the local Keynoter newspaper.

Mills, who refused an interview request, argued that short-term renters "rape our canals and ocean and go home, leaving us with their garbage and debris."

The county has added three code enforcement officials and extra support staff to handle the new task.

So far, more than 50 complaints have been investigated, and 18 of the houses in question have come into compliance, said Tom Simmons, Monroe County's director of code enforcement.

The ordinance carries a fine of up to $500 a day per unit.

"Most renters are law-abiding citizens. They go to the restaurants; they go back to the house and sleep," he said.

"But they are on vacation, so sometimes they'll be out on the deck, fishing, joking, drinking until 3 in the morning, while you have to sleep so you can go to work and your kids can go to school."

Dispute over burden

Realtors, however, argue that renters place no more burden on the Keys than permanent residents, and in fact may even pose less, as most rental houses are not occupied every week of the year.

Officials do not have statistics on how many of the 3 million annual visitors to the Keys stay in rental homes rather than hotels.

There are about 15,000 hotel rooms in the Keys, with the greatest concentration in the larger towns, such as Key West, Marathon and Key Largo.

Wendy Sullivan Glenn, a Realtor and rental agent, said an accountant hired by those opposed to the rental limit estimated that there were about 4,100 licensed vacation rentals in Monroe County in 1996, when the study was conducted, and at least that many unlicensed.

Three-fourths of those renters leased the houses for less than 28 days, and they paid $60 million for those houses, the study found. Sales tax on those short-term rentals totaled almost $6.3 million.

"They've eliminated an entire market," Glenn said. "These are not motel people. They're not going to switch over."

Not all permanent residents are opposed to the renters.

"The renters are no trouble at all," said Bill Turner, a retired engineer who lives next to the Richardson home.

"They're just like everyone else in the neighborhood."

Bernie Matthews, who with his wife, Louise, manages the rental of the Richardson house and several others, said potential customers are carefully evaluated.

The rental agents refuse, for example, to rent to college students on spring break. But rowdy partyers aren't the typical clientele in this part of the Keys, he said, where rents are fairly pricey and the atmosphere is subdued.

Common fear

Opponents of the new law say its effects will trickle down the entire chain of people who depend on house renters -- the maids hired to clean between rentals, the boats that take them diving or fishing, the bars and restaurants that feed them, the grocery stores that stock their homes.

Loss of jobs or wages is a common fear these days up and down the Overseas Highway, the southernmost stretch of U.S. 1, which connects the Keys to the mainland.

Diving shops, restaurants and other businesses say they couldn't make it if they had to depend solely on locals for customers.

"You're talking the difference between a $20, $30 night and a $100 night as far as tips go," said Martha Martinez, a bartender and waitress at Key Deer Bar-B-Q on Big Pine Key.

"I don't have a problem with the tourist. The tourist is my friend."

For residents of the Lower Keys, the new ordinance comes as the second of a one-two punch to hit some homeowners in this stretch.

Recovering from hurricane

Hurricane Georges battered parts of the islands in September, ripping up roofs, upending docks and flooding homes and streets.

Some of the same houses that sustained a portion of the estimated $250 million damage to the Keys are now affected by the rental ban.

Bill Turner, who like many neighbors is still repairing the hurricane damage to his house, says he has no plans for renting it out but would like to keep that option.

"I used to be one of them," Turner said. "I used to rent before I bought. I think this new law is an abomination. It's a citizen's right.

"Maybe I will want to rent my house out sometime. You don't want to lose that right."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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