Bert Harris cases go back to court

Bert Harris cases go back to court
Judge Charles Sniffen hears arguments for and against a summary judgment in six Bert Harris cases against the city of Holmes Beach Sept. 4. - Kristin Swain | Sun

BRADENTON – Six Bert Harris cases against the city of Holmes Beach are awaiting a ruling on the city’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. Three more were part of a group of cases where the motion for judgment on the pleadings was denied but were given 90 days for additional discovery before a judge will rule on the property owners’ motion for partial summary judgment.

On Sept. 4, Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Charles Sniffen heard arguments from attorney Jay Daigneault, representing Holmes Beach, and attorney Aaron Thomas, representing the property owners. Daigneault argued that Sniffen should rule in favor of the city’s motion for judgment based on the pleadings in six Bert Harris cases against the city.

All of the cases argue that the city’s occupancy requirement of two people per bedroom or a maximum of six people per vacation rental unit places an inordinate burden on the property owners and causes a reduction in property value. They also stem from the city’s enactment of regulations governing vacation rentals in 2015 and the vacation rental certificate program enacted in 2016.

Holmes Beach Bert Harris Aaron Thomas
Attorney Aaron Thomas argues against the city of Holmes Beach’s motion for judgment on the pleadings for six Bert Harris cases. – Kristin Swain | Sun

Daigneault argued that the cases were filed prematurely by property owners. Thomas argued that because the city cannot give his clients a variance for occupancy due to the occupancy limit of two people per bedroom being in the Holmes Beach comprehensive plan since 2009, the city is denying his clients any relief from the vacation rental regulations.

Sniffen opted to reserve ruling on the case to issue a written order at a later date.

“Whichever way it goes, it’s just a part of the process,” Titsworth said after the hearing concluded. “I couldn’t be happier today.”

The previous week, on Aug. 28, Judge Edward Nicholas heard the same argument for five other Bert Harris cases against Holmes Beach and denied the city’s motion for judgment on the pleadings for all five.

On Sept. 9, Nicholas heard Thomas’s argument for partial summary judgment on three Bert Harris cases for properties owned by AMI Breeze LLC, Mojito Splash LLC and Coral Escape LLC, all cases where the city’s motion for judgment on the pleadings were denied.

Thomas argued previous use of property, where the properties were rented for several years to an unregulated number of occupants without the city’s interference and that the occupancy limits now imposed by city leaders have severely devalued his clients’ properties if they were to be resold as vacation rental properties. He said that all three of the properties are currently used solely as vacation rentals.

Daigneault argued on behalf of the city that a significant amount of discovery is still outstanding in the cases, particularly the city’s attorneys’ depositions of the property appraiser used to determine loss of value and the plaintiffs in the case.

The judge said that as a part of the discovery process he would like to see proof that the residences were rented to the higher-than-allowed number of occupants listed in the complaints against the city other than just the word of the rental managers to help prove the loss in value for the property owners.

Nicholas deferred his ruling for 90 days to allow the city to schedule depositions and continue the discovery process. He added he thinks there are several, if not all, of the issues in each case that could be ruled on by summary judgment and that he would be speaking with Sniffen to see if his fellow judge thinks that mediation between the parties would be beneficial.

If the judge denies the motion for partial summary judgment, the cases would go to a bench trial before the judge. A jury would later determine what compensation, if any, would be awarded.

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