Is there a vacation rental in your neighborhood that’s driving you nuts?
You’re not alone.
A group of residents from Wellington’s Sugar Pond Manor neighborhood went to Wellington’s council meeting last week to share their frustration over a pair of Airbnb vacation rentals that they say play host to out-of-control parties and other un-neighborly behavior — including an alleged incident with possible prostitution.
The group in their comments to the council at the May 9 meeting included documentation of their concerns in the form of messages to the manager of one of the Airbnbs, photos of cars overflowing the driveways of both homes in possible violation of Wellington’s code, concern about a school bus stop near the homes and a list of calls for service from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to each address.
One is a two-story house on the cul de sac of Barberry Court, and the other is a single-story house farther east on Barberry Drive. The same owner’s name is on both properties, and neighbors said they share a management company as well. I’m trying to reach the owner for comment. I’ve also reached out to Airbnb. I’ll update this article with their replies.
Cul de sac chaos?
A woman who at the meeting identified herself as Mrs. Munoz and whose name and contact information was redacted from her public comment card spoke first, saying she lives next to the house on Barberry Court.
She and her family moved to Wellington in June of 2022 “because it’s known to be ‘a great hometown,’ which is known for its beautiful family-friendly community,” she said. “Unfortunately, the village of Wellington has not kept up that reputation.”
After moving into the home, Munoz said she noticed there were a lot of people coming and going from the house next door. Soon she realized that the house next door was a vacation rental.
Those staying at the house hosted raucous parties with numerous cars that would “overtake the cul de sac,” she said.
In November, Munoz said she believes a prostitution ring briefly ran out of the house, with five women going into the house and not coming out for three days, as a revolving door of men arrived and left the home and parties were held. At one point, she said there were 20 cars for a party at the house.
“And mind you, we’re in the cul de sac,” Munoz said.
She tried to find a way to contact the owner or property manager, and decided to make an Airbnb account to reach out that way. She messaged the management company on the weekend she said she suspected prostitution was happening, and the company came out on the third day, took videos and shut down the partying.
“At times, these cars that came would be very loud, so of course it’s not welcoming for a so-called family community,” Munoz said.
She and her neighbors began reaching out to Wellington, Airbnb and the management company to see what could be done, Munoz said. Instead of answers, they felt brushed aside by Airbnb and the houses’ managers, she said.
“At this point I’m concerned as a mother for the safety of my child,” Munoz said, her eyes filling with tears. She added, “Please understand that when you witness prostitution next door, you don’t feel safe anymore. So you really need to take into consideration the safety of the children, because within Sugar Pond Manor, you have Wellington Elementary, Wellington Landings Middle School families and just families.”
And the problem could grow, she said: Another house on the cul de sac is for sale, and Munoz said she has video of an investor saying he plans to buy the home and turn it into another Airbnb.
“It’s just becoming a nuisance to families, and I’m not the only family. There’s a lot of families on Barberry Court and Barberry Drive that feel the way that I feel,” Munoz said.
What can be done?
She was followed by fellow neighbor Alina Armas, who teaches Kindergarten at Binks Forest Elementary School.
Armas said she would like Wellington to examine its vacation rental rules to see what could be done.
“I think that, speaking to the heart, we must do something,” Armas said. “We must definitely do something about what is taking place on our street, and from what I understand, it’s taking place in a lot of other areas here in Wellington, so if we can, please work together to try to come up with a solution.”
Mayor Anne Gerwig — who lauded Armas’ work as a Kindergarten teacher and said Armas taught all three of her children — asked Armas to share her cellphone number with the other residents who spoke at the meeting.
But, she said, the state prevents Wellington “from almost all the things you just asked us for, almost all of them.”
“We’re going to ask our attorney to take a look at what we can do, but as far as I understand, we are enforcing as much as we can,” Gerwig said.
The council’s position is that Wellington’s vacation rental ordinance should be enforced as strictly as possible under Florida law, Councilman John McGovern said — but the state legislature continues to pre-empt local governments’ ability to regulate the industry.
“I can tell you, I just took a moment a minute ago to go back through my email on legislative updates and as recently as last week … literally just last Wednesday and Thursday at the very end of the session, some very, very powerful lobbying folks with a great deal of money in Tallahassee yet again watered down and took away the authority that we have to do, as the mayor says, almost any of what you’re asking us to do,” McGovern said.
Past issues in Wellington
This isn’t Wellington’s first run-in with bad behavior at vacation rentals. In the couple of years before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an issue with teens and young adults booking vacation rentals for massive parties throughout Palm Beach County. One party on Anhinga Lane that I covered for The Palm Beach Post in June 2019 led to one arrest and hundreds of teens walking through typically quiet streets late at night after the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office was called.
PBSO at the time said they will shut down the parties when they are called, and deputies can work with vacation rental owners to shut the parties down in advance if they have information beforehand.
When I reached out to Airbnb at the time, a spokesperson told me, “The reported behavior reflects a breach of trust that has no place on Airbnb, and we’ve reached out to the host to help them initiate a claim under $1 Million Host Guarantee. We’ve also suspended the booking guest’s account while we investigate further. There have been over half a billion guest arrivals in Airbnb listings to date and negative incidents are extremely rare.”
Since that incident, Airbnb in 2022 banned parties from its properties, after issuing a temporary ban during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Disruptive parties and events will continue to be prohibited, including open-invite gatherings. ‘Party house’ properties will continue to be strictly prohibited as well,” Airbnb said in a post announcing the party ban.
Airbnb also created a dedicated site where neighbors can report parties and other issues with one of their properties.
That and other incidents around the same time with parties at vacation rentals led Wellington’s council in 2020 to approve new rules around what the state says municipalities can control, including the number of cars in the driveway and the number of people in the house. The ordinance also requires vacation rental owners to check to see if guests are on a national sex offender registry.
Even if Wellington found “a creative solution,” it may not be able to enact it, McGovern said. “The answer is, if you find one, you are banned by state law from doing it,” he said. “So we are with you.”
Where Armas pointed to cities that have vacation rental rules that are more strict than Wellington’s, Gerwig said those cities’ rules were grandfathered in because they were in place before a certain date.
“We need to be strategic, but if we don’t have our residents coming and telling us what’s going on, then we don’t necessarily know, and I live right in your neighborhood, right across the street,” said Gerwig, whose home is on Paddock Drive.
“We share your frustration, trust me,” Councilwoman Tanya Siskind said.
Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone said it was “very troubling” that he hadn’t heard about the issue in Sugar Pond Manor until the council meeting. “We should have learned this months ago, because it’s not a new problem,” he said, vowing that Wellington will use “the limited tools in our very small tool box” to help however possible.
Since Wellington staff met with Armas two weeks ago, code officers have increased patrols past the Airbnbs, Village Manager Jim Barnes said. He noted that there were no violations this past week.
Armas encouraged Wellington’s council and staff to keep up the oversight.
“Because of the nature of the beast, so to speak, it changes,” she said. “It can change within hours, that you have this coming along.”
Gerwig said Village Attorney Laurie Cohen will look at what Wellington can do, in light of the bill heading to the governor’s desk that may further pre-empt village action.
If you suspect illegal activity at a vacation rental near you, call PBSO. If it’s an emergency, dial 911. Otherwise, call the non-emergency line at 561-688-3000. For Wellington’s Code Compliance team, call 561-753-2560 or email email@example.com.
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