Fire district looks at reclassifying vacation rentals

    ANNA MARIA ISLAND – Vacation rentals are a popular use of residential properties both on the Island and in unincorporated Manatee County where West Manatee Fire Rescue’s district is located. Now district leaders are looking at reclassifying those properties within their district as commercial properties for enforcement and tax purposes.

    During a January board meeting, Fire Marshal Rodney Kwiatkowski presented the idea to the district’s staff and board of commissioners as a life safety concern. With so many people in and out of vacation rentals across the district and limited oversight from government agencies, as a preventative measure, he said he’d like the district’s fire prevention bureau to be able to inspect the properties for safety.

    Inspections would include looking for items such as properly placed smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, floor plans of the home indicating exit points, emergency lighting and other precautionary measures commonly found in commercial properties. To fund the initiative, he suggested the fire department’s staff look into the possibility of assessing the owners of vacation rental properties in the district as commercial rather than residential properties. If that happens, it will mean a jump of approximately $200 per year, depending on the size of the property, for vacation rental owners and an increase of more than $1 million in funding to the fire district.

    To run the program, Kwiatkowski said the district would need two more inspectors and an assistant at an estimated cost of $350,309 per year with an additional $140,000 needed to pay for department vehicles for the new hires.
    Currently, the district charges a fire assessment on residential trim notices at a lower rate than they do for commercial properties. And while multiple-unit residential properties are already assessed and inspected as commercial properties, traditionally residential properties, such as single-family homes and duplexes, are still treated as if a full-time resident lives there. Because they are rented, Kwiatkowski said that under the state’s fire code, the properties are identified as transient public lodging establishments, allowing for them to be inspected by the fire district’s staff. This is the same designation given to a hotel.

    In the past three years, Kwiatkowski said that of the 11 residential structure fires on the Island, eight of them were at vacation rental properties. In 2022, he said there were three pediatric drownings or near-drownings on the Island, all of which occurred at rental properties.

    He presented the proposed project at a Holmes Beach Code Compliance town hall meeting with vacation rental owners and representatives on Jan. 31, reassuring the rental community that the fire department would be working with local municipalities to make sure that enforcement and inspections would not overlap with those currently taking place on the Island as a result of city efforts to make rentals safer for visitors. He added that the inspections would likely begin taking place in the fall.