November 13, 2019

KEY LARGO — A Monroe County judge has overturned a cease-and-desist order issued against Thurmond Street Partners, thereby recognizing the company’s properties as a legally operating vacation rental enterprise that may host weddings in a residential neighborhood.

The company appealed a special magistrate’s ruling calling for it to stop hosting weddings, which are marketed online through Key Largo Lighthouse Beach Weddings. Last week Circuit Court Judge Timothy Koenig ruled in the company’s favor, lifting the prohibitive final order.

Monroe County Code Enforcement had initially lodged a case against the company in 2015 for improperly running a vacation rental enterprise, but allowed it 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. Last year the county later slapped the company with additional violations for essentially operating a commercial enterprise in a residential neighborhood.

Attorney Russ Yagel, who represents Thurmond Street Partners, previously said his client was a victim of its own success and maintained that no current county ordinance or resolution states a property owner cannot host weddings in a a suburban residential zone.

He further 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.

“They met the requirements to be a homeowner’s association and they met compliance. Prior to the compliance finding, life was good — so good, in fact, the owner bought a second property,” Yagel said at the land use code enforcement hearing last April. “The code 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.”

David McGraw, who owns Thurmond Street Partners, said he simply leases out his vacation rental properties and has nothing to do with the weddings, which are organized by renters through the Key Largo Lighthouse Beach Weddings website, which his company pays to be listed on.

The outcome of that particular administrative hearing was a stalemate after both parties failed to reach a stipulated agreement.

It would be a year later, and in a different court system, that Yagel’s defense would net a victory.

Koenig rejected the special magistrate’s finding that the increasing number of weddings taking place on Thurmond Street Partners’s two properties made it essentially a commercial destination resort. He said the county and magistrate failed to establish that Thurmond Street Partners was engaged in commercial activity, or whether that activity was instead being carried out by the renters or website owner.

There was also no dispute about the legality of hosting weddings on vacation rental property, he found.

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

“What separates appellant’s use of its properties from … other universally accepted uses, the county argues, is the frequency and intensity of the weddings that occur on the properties and the fact that the properties are specifically marketed for this purpose,” Koenig ruled.

“Neither the county nor the special magistrate in its final order have been able to identify how a vacation renter’s use of the vacation rental property to host a wedding, even if greater in magnitude, is legally different in kind than a wedding hosted by any other property owner or renter in the district.”

Koenig said the county should not put the courts in the “untenable position” of imposing limitations on the duration and frequency of vacation rentals. Instead, he said, the county might consider amending its code to regulate the number of occupants allowed in a vacation rental or limit the number of special events permissible in suburban residential districts.

Monroe County officials hadn’t decided as of press time whether to seek a rehearing or appeal the case in the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Yagel did not respond to an email request for a comment on this story.

tjava@keysnews.com