Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Boca vs. Vacation Rental Party Houses and Brightline to the Beach?

The perpetual issue of vacation rentals has prompted a court case in Boca Raton.

Last month, two houses whose owners were operating them as vacation rentals were shut down. Several weeks earlier, neighbors had complained at a council meeting about large parties and loud noise at those houses—951 and 960 Northwest Fourth Court. One neighbor said he confronted the owner, who responded with a profanity.

“We share your concerns,” Mayor Scott Singer said. “What are our tools?” asked City Attorney Diana Frieser. “I don’t know,” said Deputy City Attorney George Brown.

Vacation rentals began to proliferate after the housing market collapsed. Investors bought homes as income properties. Absentee owners saw renting as an option. Local officials worried that the trend could threaten single-family neighborhoods. Renters who wanted to party for a week wouldn’t care about people who lived nearby.

In 2011, after lobbying by Airbnb and other vacation rental companies, the Legislature blocked cities and counties from regulating such properties. Existing laws, however, stayed in place. Three years later, the Legislature restored some of that authority to deal with problems like those alleged at the council meeting.

Both houses turned over last fall. The one at 951 Northwest Fourth Court sold for $1.43 million in November. According to the property appraiser’s website, the owner is Nechama Lipskar. The mailing address is in Miami. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation shows that Nechama Lipskar holds a real estate license.

The house at 960 Northwest Fourth Court sold for $950,000 in October. The listed owners are Chaim Lipskar, Yaacov Biston, Masha Laine and Solomon Laine. Chaim Lipskar is a rabbi in Miami.

One of those “tools” to regulate vacation rentals is code enforcement. On March 25, a magistrate held a hearing regarding 960 Northwest Fourth Court. According to the minutes of the meeting, the city had been tracking “many different vehicles” parked at the house. The owners’ attorney, James Green, said Boca Raton does not limit how many guests a homeowner can have. The city responded that the home was listed on Airbnb. Any guests, the city suggested, were not those of an owner who lives there.

In March, police had responded after neighbors complained about noise from a party that featured a DJ. Three neighbors testified that they had seen between 70 and 80 tenants at the house in the last two months. Another neighbor said a bachelorette party had been the noisiest.

Chaim Lipskar testified that he didn’t allow renters to have parties. As he confirmed with me on Monday, Lipskar said he contacted the city before buying the house to ask about using it as a vacation rental. Lipskar was told, he said, that Boca Raton did not prohibit such use.

The noise complaints, Lipskar claimed, were “fake calls.” He said noise monitors had been installed. At the hearing, a Boca Raton official said the city “was only required to prove that the home was using the property for something other than a single-family residence.” One of the tenants, he said, was a sports team.

As I mentioned, that 2011 law did not affect existing city rules. Boca Raton is seeking to regulate these two homes under the city’s law that governs motels. The city asked the magistrate to fine the owners $1,000 a day or end the vacation rentals.

On April 13, a hearing was held regarding alleged short-term rental violations at 951 Northwest Fourth Court. The city testified that it was a repeat violation. The magistrate issued a fine of $3,000.

Green represented the plaintiffs who sued Boca Raton nearly two decades ago over the city’s sober house restrictions. He also represented sober house operators in Delray Beach.

Green said he filed notice April 6 of the homeowners’ intent to challenge the closing of the two houses, which looked unoccupied on a recent afternoon. He must file a brief within 70 days of that date. Green said the city has no ordinance that applies to vacation rentals and that the motel regulations don’t apply.

Lipskar confirmed that 960 Northwest Fourth Avenue is for sale, listed at $1.75 million. Doesn’t that obviate the owners’ gripe with the city over vacation rentals? No, Green said, because any sale would come with the baggage of the code complaints.

This case bears watching, especially with investors again buying more houses in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, this time to cash in on the new real estate boom. Local governments also can expect that the vacation rental industry will be back in Tallahassee next year seeking more restrictions on what cities and counties could do.

Boca road project comes in over-budget

Boca Raton will spend $4.2 million on the stretch of road between the coming Brightline station and Palmetto Park Road.

The project on Northwest First Avenue was supposed to cost $1.2 million. City Manager Leif Ahnell said pandemic-era cost increases pushed the price much higher. City council members, acting as the community redevelopment agency board, approved the additional $3 million at the Monday meeting. It will come from CRA reserves.

According to Ahnell’s memo, the work will turn Northwest First Avenue into a one-way street. The project will include “sidewalk enhancements” and a new traffic light at Northwest Second Street.

It’s part of the city’s attempt to leverage the station to improve downtown Boca Raton. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who has been working with a group of professionals on redesigning East Palmetto Park Road, on Monday called it “Brightline to the Beach.” Monica Mayotte called it “an exciting opportunity.”

The station is east of the downtown library on Fourth Street. Much of the area between there and Palmetto Park Road is industrial and not conducive to pedestrians. Just farther west is City Hall and the police station. In recent years, Boca Raton has envisioned a transformed community gathering area with new facilities.

On Monday, there was much talk of a “new vision” for downtown. The work on Northwest First Avenue is one more attempt at it.

Brightline seeks additional grant funds

Speaking of Brightline, the company has announced that it will seek $35 million in government grants for additional safety measures.

Over the weekend came the 63rd death of someone struck by a Brightline train. According to police, a scooter driver tried to go around the gates at a crossing in Pompano Beach. Investigators have concluded that no fatality has been caused by the operator of a train or the safety equipment at the crossing.

Of that $35 million, $25 million would come from the federal government and $10 million would come from the state. Brightline would contribute $10 million. The work would stretch from Miami to Cocoa, from which trains will go inland to Orlando.

Given all the safety work to date, one wonders how much more government and Brightline can do. One of the proposed projects is “Do Not Stop on Tracks” signs at crossings. Do drivers and pedestrians need to be told that it’s dangerous to stop?

Boca city council to discuss building fees

boca raton

On the agenda for tonight’s city council meeting is approval of a fee for buildings covered by Boca Raton’s building safety recertification program.

The council approved the program last August, just two months after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside. Boca Raton remains the only local government in Florida to establish post-Surfside safety requirements. Broward and Miami-Dade counties had required reinspections every 40 years. Champlain Towers was just short of that date.

City officials said the program would take roughly $250,000 annually to implement. To defray part of that cost, Ahnell recommends a $500 fee, which would raise $25,000 a year based on estimates of 50 recertifications annually. The city estimates that it will take four years to clear the backlog. Affected buildings—there are about 250—must be 30 years old. The law calls for follow-up inspections every 10 years. Single-family homes and duplexes are exempt.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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