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Lawyer: Wedding venue ruling a victory for all

(This article originally appeared in Florida Keys Free Press on November 20, 2019)

By Theresa Java Free Press Staff

November 20, 2019

KEY LARGO — Thurmond Street Partners’ recent win on its appeal, which recognizes the legality of the vacation rental property that advertises its use as a wedding venue (Key Largo Lighthouse Weddings), is a victory for all property owners, according to attorney Russ Yagel, who defended the company against county code enforcement violations.

The two vacation rental properties may continue to rent to wedding parties at both homes in a residential neighborhood.

“Allowing vacation renters to host weddings on this property has been an economic boon for Key Largo businesses and residents,” Yagel said.

A Monroe County judge recently overturned the special magistrate’s cease-and-desist order that likened the operation to a commercial enterprise operating illegally in a suburban residential zone and ordered the vacation rental property to cease all wedding activities.

Yagel then filed an appeal of the code enforcement case, maintaining that current county code does not prohibit a property owner from hosting weddings in a residential neighborhood.

“The code [enforcement] doesn’t prohibit the use of a vacation rental for a social event, or wedding, unless it exceeds a certain number, but we don’t know what that number is,” the [County Attorney] had previously said.

Circuit Judge Timothy Koenig, who ruled in Thurmond Street Partners’ favor, noted that the county doesn’t dispute that fact in overturning the special magistrate’s order.

“The parties agree that nothing in the code prohibits an owner or renter of a property in a suburban residential district from hosting weddings on vacation rental properties,” Koenig wrote in his opinion.

Monroe County Code Enforcement had initially lodged a case against the company in 2015 for improperly running a vacation rental enterprise, but allowed the company to set up a homeowner’s association and take other steps to comply with county code. The company subsequently purchased an adjacent property for vacation rentals as well to accommodate its growing business.

Last year the county slapped the company with additional violations for essentially operating a commercial enterprise in a residential neighborhood.

Yagel defended Thurmond Street Partners by saying that the county was fully aware of the wedding activity taking place on the property as far back as 2014, but only took action on the vacation rental matter, which was ultimately resolved.

He blamed the county’s code enforcement action on busybodies who unfairly accused Thurmond Street Partners of allowing fireworks during weddings on its properties.

“This case is the result of a handful of ‘community activists,’ who oppose tourism and are wrongly blaming the property owner for discharging fireworks,” Yagel said. “The actual number of fireworks displays occurring in connection with events at the Thurmond Street properties was a mere four times over the past five years.

“All fireworks discharged in connection with any events on these properties were discharged from the water and controlled, regulated and permitted by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Monroe County Fire Marshal. The owner has never applied for or received any permits to discharge fireworks.”

Most of the firework displays in the Thurmond Street Partners’ properties were discharged in conjunction with events at other facilities, according to Yagel.

“The concerns of local citizens can be easily addressed without inflicting damage upon the property owners or the economic opportunities these properties hold for Key Largo residents,” he said. “The owner of this property has always been willing, and remains so, to work with the county and nearby residents to reasonably address this issue.”

Furthermore, because of the recent ruling, Yagel said there is no need for Thurmond Street Partners to seek a zoning change from residential to commercial for the property.

“If the county attempts to pass a new ordinance to prevent or limit the number of weddings on a residential parcel without creating an exception for Thurmond Street (e.g., a ‘grandfather provision’), we believe such a provision would be unenforceable against Thurmond Street and would expose the county to significant liability,” he said.

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