Mary Esther owners sue town over short-term vacation rental ban


MARY ESTHER – A lawsuit has been filed to stop the city’s efforts to enforce an order prohibiting landlords from using their homes as vacation rental properties.

Filed on behalf of 16 clients by attorneys representing law firm Matthews and Jones, the lawsuit argues that Mary Esther has no legal standing to tell homeowners living in areas zoned for residential development that they cannot to rent.

According to the lawsuit, in 2018, the town of Marie Esther began to enforce an ordinance that said vacation rentals are considered commercial uses and are therefore prohibited in residential areas.

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Enforcement consisted primarily of serving a notice of non-compliance from the enforcement section of the city code.

Also in 2018, Florida passed a law that says “a local law, ordinance or regulation cannot prohibit vacation rentals,” the lawsuit said. He calls the city’s attempts to force compliance with its ordinance a “blatant attempt to circumvent Florida state preemption.”

Despite a citywide ban on short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, The Cedars Condominiums in Mary Esther is an area where condo owners have claimed Florida law protects their right to offer. their vacation rental accommodation.

The vacation rental problem came to a head in May, according to the lawsuit, when city code enforcement officials increased the number of notices of non-compliance issued. The owners found themselves confused.

“They doubt their rights and obligations with regard to the use of residential properties as vacation rentals,” says the lawsuit.

She is calling a declaratory judgment on behalf of the owners.

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Attorney Dana Matthews said a similar lawsuit was filed after the city of Destin tried to create ordinances to prevent problems from being caused by vacation tenants in homes in residential areas. The city lost its case.

“It’s the same old thing,” he said. “We do what we can to get tourists here and then we decide we don’t like them.”

Sixteen Mary Esther landlords have sued the city over its ban on short-term rentals in residential areas.  One area where full-time residents have complained about the use of some units as vacation rentals is Cedars Condominiums.

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The lawsuit notes that only once so far has a resident of Mary Esther challenged the city’s ordinance by taking a vacation rental case to the city’s code compliance magistrate. And in this case, the owner won.

Steven K. Hall, the magistrate who sided with the owner in a 2019 case, said the resident’s use of the home as short term rental for residential purposes could not violate the city ordinance without the city being able to show evidence of commercial activity occurring on the property, according to the lawsuit.

“Despite this detention, the city continued to harass (homeowners who filed a complaint) by issuing notices of non-compliance for simply renting out their properties as vacation rentals,” the lawsuit said.

A motion to dismiss the owners’ lawsuit, filed on behalf of Mary Esther by attorney Eric Krebs, argues that a single decision by a magistrate for a landlord against the city does not allow the owners named in the lawsuit on right to seek declaratory judgment on them on behalf of.

“It is clear that the magistrate did not rule that vacation rentals were never allowed in a residential area, just that (…) the city did not present sufficient evidence that the activity was commercial nature “, specifies the request for dismissal.

Krebs’ office said his law firm does not comment on pending litigation.

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