Tampa Bay weather. July 6, 2022.
Editorial: Write Plain English Rules Now to Save Florida’s Natural Springs
A jargon-laden draft leaves people confused and sources unprotected.
Florida’s freshwater springs need our help. We have abused it over the past few decades. Many important people talk about supporting the sources, restoring them to their original state or something close to that. In 2016, the Legislature even passed a sweeping law that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to create rules to combat overpumping of groundwater that keeps springs healthy. But six years later, the state has still not established these rules.
Florida has over 700 freshwater springs. Some are just a trickle, while others shoot out over 100 cubic feet per second. It’s like filling 17 standard bathtubs to the brim every second. When healthy, they are home to many wildlife species. They also attract tourists and locals looking for a place to cool off. But for decades, the springs have taken a devastating punch, Zachary T. Sampson of the Tampa Bay Times reported in a recent article. Fertilizer runoff and other pollution have spread contaminants that smother the springs with algae. Pollution has altered 24 of 30 state-designated “Outstanding Florida Springs,” according to state records.
At the same time, businesses and local governments have diverted huge amounts of water from the aquifer to homes, farms and bottling plants. All this pumping has slowed the flow of some springs. Less water flowing through the source means pollution is not diluted as effectively. Damage, in other words, feeds on itself.
The 2016 law was a solid attempt to fix the problem. People, farms and businesses need water to survive, but lawmakers agreed the state should establish rules to ensure the long-term health of springs. The idea was to tighten the water extraction permit process around one of the state’s designated “exceptional Florida resorts,” The Times reported. The rules would stop overpumping and help restore sources.
And then six years passed.
In March, state environment officials unveiled draft rules. Just a draft, mind you, not the final product. It will take longer. The bill, however, was loaded with jargon that undermines the law’s purpose, said David Simmons, a Republican and former second-in-command of the Florida Senate who helped craft the law. Look, bureaucrats sometimes like jargon. But jargon can also be used to complicate the application of rules. No one can tell what the rule is actually aiming for, so it lacks power. Is that what’s going on here? State officials say otherwise. They are still seeking comment on the rules, they said. They also point to the $220 million spent on source restoration over the past three years. Yet why confuse the simple concept of “do no more harm”?
These rules should be simple and easy to understand. They must balance the needs of residents, farmers and businesses, but cannot be written in a way that does little or nothing to strengthen existing laws. What we are doing now is not working. If we continue to do this, the pollution will get worse. As the state moves towards a final draft, the benefit of the doubt must go to the sources. The springs need to be saved. Now. Not in six years.
Orlando Sentinel. July 10, 2022.
Editorial: For vacation rentals, a step towards “good neighbour” status
Last year, two of the biggest players in the short-term rental industry vowed to address the disruption their customers were inflicting on communities across the country. Residents of the greater Orlando area — which is the industry’s No. 1 destination for family groups and the most in-demand search queries for the 4th of July weekend — knew what they were talking about. They had seen the peace of too many neighborhoods shattered by the incessant noise and traffic. In extreme cases, third-party developers would turn residential properties into drug and alcohol-fueled bacchanalia, charging entrance fees and packing dozens of people into a single house.
Airbnb and Vrbo, the two leading rental platforms, have joined forces on a promise to do better. Last month, Airbnb, the nation’s largest vacation rental platform, enacted permanent changes that will make it easier to identify irresponsible users — renters and landlords — and shut them down. The new policy includes a general ban on “disruptive parties,” but goes beyond that to address patterns associated with bad behavior. For example, over the 4th of July weekend, potential guests without positive reviews were blocked from booking overnight stays at homes. And Airbnb says it was also looking for last-minute bookings from locals.
Additionally, Airbnb has set up a portal that allows nearby property owners to file complaints about disruptive listings at www.airbnb.com/neighbors. And they put those policies into action. In 2021, Airbnb suspended more than 6,600 guests for violating the party ban, company spokesperson Haven Thorn said. “We don’t tolerate people violating our policies,” he says. Year-over-year, Florida saw a 67% drop in complaints about party homes on Airbnb.
Vrbo hasn’t taken as many overt steps as Airbnb, but in a joint press release it said it applies similar criteria to blocking problem listings. The two companies ― which dominate 75% of the Florida vacation rental market ― also share data, and Vrbo has set up its own platform to report issues: https://homeaway.secure.force.com/ helpcenter/StayNeighborly
These are necessary steps that should help Florida officials craft better policy around an industry that is still driving sweeping changes in the state’s tourism profile.
Short-term rentals have disrupted Florida tourism in ways few anticipated. For some owners, the industry has been a boon, allowing them to earn extra income from their biggest investment. Vacationers also appreciate the ability to choose a family environment rather than resorts. And the industry is becoming an economic engine, pumping an estimated $27 billion into Florida’s economy pre-COVID. For the 4th of July weekend, Orlando was the most searched destination on Airbnb for families and travelers planning long stays.
But there is a dark side. Across the state, thousands of quiet residential communities have had their tranquility disrupted when investors buy up one or more properties and turn them into full-time party spots – playing loud music, scattering trash and bringing an endless stream of of strangers in a once- cohesive and peaceful community. The New York Times recently cited industry analysis showing that party house complaints on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo soared 250% between July and September 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
When residents of these neighborhoods asked for help, they were often met with a wall of indifference, with no way to contact landlords and an intermediate response from vacation rental websites. In some areas, residents said they were afraid to let their children walk to school or even play in the yard. Others reported seeing trash — and even drunken revelers — spilling into adjacent yards, and vehicles parked haphazardly on streets and on private property. Noise is a constant complaint.
We have laid heavy criticism at the feet of the biggest corporations in the short-term rental industry for their heavy-handed political tactics and attempts to overrule local governments’ ability to decide where short-term rentals should be allowed. In 2011, the industry persuaded Florida lawmakers to block cities and counties from most vacation rental regulations, although communities that already had rules in place were exempted. The industry has not stopped pushing, and every year bills are introduced that would further impede local control. We still think preemption is wrong. Local elected officials know their communities best. They understand which areas can handle vacation rentals and which areas should remain strictly residential. If platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo are serious about helping communities, they will work to lift the local regulatory lock-up and work with cities and counties to develop streamlined and fair rules that respect individuality and local needs.
The new “party house” rule is an important gesture of good faith. It shows an understanding of the disruption vacation rentals can create and a willingness to change company policy – even sacrifice some profits – to limit their impact on communities. Cynics might dismiss the new policies as a front in favor of stronger pressure to gut local rules. But the app’s numbers bolster hopes that the big platforms are ready to take the next logical step — and want to work with cities and counties instead of stifling local control. It would be a real good neighborly way to go.
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