The Increasingly Unimportant Citizen
By John V. Gallant
Few places possess the beauty and uniqueness of The Florida Keys within the borders of The United States. I would suggest no other place within The United States border strikes such vivid imagery in tourists who daydream of escaping to a tropical paradise. And, while they may mistakenly picture long sandy beaches stretching throughout our islands, noticeably missing in these whimsical fantasies are; billboards littering the road, corporate hotels and condominiums lining every square inch of the waterfront, and 50 spring breakers crammed into a 2-bedroom house in a formerly tranquil neighborhood.
It appears some Florida Legislators have been taking notes on the federal governments steady progression of usurping of state powers. What The State Legislators recently birthed as proposed legislation has ramifications which could potentially change the nature of the keys catastrophically. Before casting aspersions of exaggeration and fear-mongering, please read further.
As we move further into 2017 we face a number of challenges, and regardless of your political affiliation there are a number of issues that need to be addressed and solved. From water quality in the bay to affordable housing, education of our youth to traffic accidents and congestion issues; the leadership in Monroe County is fully tasked. While a cursory exam may contraindicate simple solutions and quick decisive action the best remedy, often this is not the case. Then introduce Florida House Bill 17 (HB 17). A scant 2 pages of seemingly innocuous text, which on its face seems to simply protect business, professions, and occupations from the legislation of municipalities; centralizing the power of regulation to The State Government.
The following examples are only a handful of the ramifications this bill could have. I am certain that there are more intelligent people who could provide more example and provide more insight into the consequences of this bill, but you are sort of stuck with me, so I will do my best.
The LGBT Community found a home in Key West
Whether you are Family, or a friend, the concept of freedom for all means that code words and secrecy is no longer a necessity for those who live what was “kindly” labelled abnormal, and more recently called an alternative lifestyle. Having fought persecution, discrimination, and shunning; appreciation for the freedoms accorded by having representation in a local governmental body who controls municipal codes and laws that reflect inclusion is imperative.
Chapter 38 of the code of ordinances for Key West is titled “Human Relations”. The Articles contained within protect people from housing discrimination based on more protected classes than what the state and federal statutes cover.
The (Federal) Fair Housing Act is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in home sales, financing, and rentals based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In Florida, Fla. Stat. §§ 760.20-760.60 also prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, familial status or religion.
Key West ordinances go much further than the state and feds, protecting both gender identity or expression, and sexual orientation from housing discrimination. This would be scuttled with HB 17 if it were passed, as these protections do not currently exist at the State Level. And the passage of HB 17 would be a giant step backwards for those who fought for protection for the most basic human right, a place to live.
Signs, signs, everywhere signs.
Municipal regulations limit the number of billboards and road front signage that businesses can display. Within The Village of Islamorada, there is a formula based on the size of the commercial building. It keeps us from being inundated with pictures of scantily clad men selling flooring. And while I do appreciate that billboard for its unique style, I do concede that one is probably enough.
Should our community not have the ability to constrain business from inundating us with the things we don’t want?
I was on the north side of the big blue bridge a few weeks ago, I think it was somewhere in Coral Gables. I noticed they had teeny tiny real estate signs advertising property for sale. I would probably be wrong, but I’d swear they were no larger than a 3×5” notebook card. As a real estate broker I thought, “That has to be frustrating for an agent, how do you advertise or brand your business on something so small?” But then I weighed that against seeing a line of larger brokerage signs lining a road, and disturbing the aesthetics of the neighborhood. I don’t really have a strong opinion on what should or should not be “allowed”, but I respect the people who decided it wasn’t what they wanted, and worked to make their neighborhood the best for its residents.
HB 17 would remove the ability of both of these communities to restrict signage in their own unique way.
Rooms by The Hour
There is a funny story involving Wood and I. We were travelling through the badlands of Mexico in a jeep with no doors, no windshield wipers, and enough rust coming off the metal bits, that sunglasses were an absolute must have. After passing the only hotel within 100 miles, at what felt like 2am, we turned around and paid a very reasonable rate for a couple rooms. Exhausted, I fell into bed and was instantly asleep. Four hours later a man, seemingly fueled by Red Bull and copious amounts of cocaine, was hitting and kicking the door hard enough to not only wake me up, but loosen the strike plate so that the door swung open. Now my proficiency in Spanish has always been lacking, but from what I could understand was that I had only paid for four hours in the room, and it was time for me to go. In any other situation, I would have been worried about the cleanliness of the bedding and left. But as sleep deprived as I was, I threw cash at the speedy sentry, said something like “doce in la manana, por mi y mi amigo” and went back to sleep.
This may be an extreme example, but from what I understand, Florida Statutes do not address a minimum rental period for residential housing. While many would like to be able to rent their houses or condominiums daily or weekly, what about residential neighborhoods and local ordinances that protect a person from a nuisance property? And not only do local ordinances protect you from the entire Pike Fraternity renting the 2-bedroom house next door and reenacting the movie Animal House; but they provide noise ordinances and capacity regulations as well.
In a perfect world your neighbor wouldn’t allow their property to be used in such a manner, but we seem to be lacking in perfection with humanity these days.
HB 17 could possibly remove municipal ordinances protecting communities from daily rentals, noise ordinances, and restrictions on the number of people who can occupy a residence. Further, the bill would restrict municipal bodies such as the fire department who ensures rentals are equipped with proper fire protection equipment and inspections that verify working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers exist within the structure.
Sure, that’s nice and all, but it looks so old
Some of the areas that I really enjoy seeing are older houses that have survived countless storms, and seem to have an absolute defiance and indifference to what mother nature could throw at them.
Smaller conch houses that have provided shelter to generations of Keys families are fascinating to me. Although I am sure there are neat areas further south, I am particularly fond of the area in Tavernier’s Historic District, and the community members came together to protect the appearance of the neighborhood and to protect its continuity.
While areas may be registered with The US Department of the Interior, and the state Itself, many of the guidelines for preservation are created at the local level. As far as residential property goes this may not have much of an impact. However, with the broad strokes HB 17 was painted with, how does this change the restrictions placed on buildings such as the Historic Tavernier Inn? Do we adopt a wait and see attitude?
Affordable Housing Who?
With new sources of revenue from short term rentals, the number of people who would purchase and rent a vacation home would most likely increase. From watching rental properties which are being sold, the current system serves to keep more houses as annual or monthly rentals, which in turn provides less return than weekly or daily rentals would.
I know of a number of sales that have taken place, or are about to take place, because the property is not generating enough revenue to make the hassle of renting monthly worthwhile. I believe this would change if owners were allowed to take whatever rentals came their way. I also believe we would see a lower number of properties available for annual rentals, and even higher property values.
The Centralization of Power
Since the time of Voltaire and Machiavelli, writers have been discussing political systems and power structures. One of the pillars on which our democracy is successfully founded on, is representation. In my opinion, the best way to have representation is to decentralize power; to retain as much power as possible at the lowest levels of government as is feasible. This allows the decision makers to be closest to their constituents, and represent their interests more effectively. People in Putnam County have different needs and challenges than people in Monroe County. How does The State rectify two different needs for each county while providing real and specific solutions for each? That would be difficult with two counties, but there are 67 counties in Florida.
This doesn’t even begin to consider the smaller municipalities such as Key West, Islamorada, or the other 408 incorporated municipalities within Florida. The task of writing State Laws to meet the challenges faced by each municipality would be impossible.
What makes it work now? We have local business owners and residents give of their time and effort to make it work. While you or I may not like everything about their decisions, they are most likely listening, and working for the common interest. I can guarantee that they are listening and working for their community’s interest more intently than The State Legislators would be. This isn’t a jab at State Legislators, just the reality that 69 Counties or 410 incorporated municipalities talking to a limited number of representatives in Tallahassee wouldn’t be a practical way to find solutions for locally based issues.
As power is transferred from the municipalities to the State, and from the State to the Federal Government, individually our voice gets lost in the crowd. Politicians rely on larger fish such as campaign donors, media outlets, and unions to win elections. We are told to which way to vote based on some singular “important” issue. The objective for politicians is more about saying the right thing to the right people to win votes, and less focus is placed on representation of their constituents. We, as individuals, become increasingly unimportant.
The Path to Perdition
My goal is not to pass judgment. You, my fellow citizen, must determine whether the positives or HB 17 outweigh the negatives. I can see how many people would like the opportunity to rent weekly, I can see how many people would like the government to stop telling them what they can and cannot do. My goal is to discuss the facets of a bill that could have far reaching implications on property within The Florida Keys, and substantially change the nature of The Keys. Especially when we consider other not-so-fun things brought to you by The State of Florida, such as the Florida Department of Transportation and their “crosswalk challenge” in Key Largo.
I was raised on a group of barrier islands that were very similar to The Keys, and as they were overbuilt and changed, their appeal was destroyed. With as much change as we have seen in the past decade, this bill would certainly accelerate further change. Whether or not you choose to move in the direction HB 17 would take us, I would implore you to make a conscious and rational decision to actively make this choice. I would also urge you to reach out to your representative in an email, you might be surprised to find they hold the same opinions you do.
Both theoretically, and in practice, consolidating power is dangerous. Regardless of your political affiliation you should be able to see that the consolidation of power to The Federal Government over the past 30 or so years has led to more discontented people when the “other candidate” takes office. It is shocking how often the consolidation or acquisition of power been overlooked for an ally. And I am constantly amazed at the shocked reaction when that power it used for another purpose after the “opposition” takes office. But there should be no surprise, as there will always be a new elected official to take their place. Those new leaders are not going to willingly give up power after it was usurped by their predecessor.
The ruins of all that was holy was strewn about and served as the mere footballs and toys of the pampered children of luxury. Never have the blighting effects of the centralization of power been better illustrated. –Voltaire, The progress of Social Science, In the year 1866
Will history continue to repeat itself? Or can we start learning from past mistakes…