Island vacation floats further out of reach

Minimum house rental in Fla. Keys: 4 weeks

February 21, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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