By John Morton
Will any of the parties associated with the ruling against the approval of two high-density Siesta Key hotels be appealing?
Until that shakes out, a Nov. 13 trial in Sarasota County’s 12th Judicial Circuit Court seems more and more unlikely.
At this point, after Judge Hunter Carroll on Aug. 21 ruled in a summary judgment that the county violated its own comprehensive plan by misinterpreting it when voting in late 2021 to allow unlimited density, all that is left to debate in court are some minor issues to make Carroll’s ruling complete. They center around whether the county further violated its comprehensive plan regarding the discouragement of development in an evacuation zone – a matter that is secondary to the ruling involving density (the number of rooms per acre) and intensity (height, setbacks, and other building-related issues).
Meanwhile, the county commissioners on Sept. 12 voted 5-0 to accept Carroll’s ruling as final – something typically needed for the matter to be eligible for appeal.
The county, as well as the developers, have already appealed a similar state ruling in April by the Division of Administrative Hearings. In a memo to the commissioners dated Aug. 29 from County Attorney Josh Moye, he warned them that appeals of both the state ruling and circuit court ruling “will be an uphill battle.”
Carroll had1 given all parties until Sept. 20 to notify his office if the November trial was needed. The lawyers for island resident Lourdes Ramirez, the victor in both cases, were to meet with the lawyers for both the county and the developers.
The developers involved have not yet publicly announced their next move. Robert Anderson, a Sarasota Realtor who was approved for an eight-story, 170-room hotel on .96 acres between Calle Miramar and Beach Road near the Village, did not reply to a request for comment.
Siesta Key resident and business owner Gary Kompothecras, who was approved for a seven-story, 120-room hotel on 1.17 acres on Old Stickney Point Road near the south bridge, as well as a five-story parking garage nearby, was uncertain of his next move but noted “There are more options available than that” when asked if he would appeal.
“Basically, the lawyers are reviewing all options. However, we aren’t going away,” Kompothecras said. “Siesta Key needs hotels on it.”
Carroll’s ruling stated that the guidelines put in place in March of 1989 are what should apply – they limited density to 26 rooms per acre (which Carroll recalculated to 36) and a height limit of 35 feet along with details on setbacks.
More legal fees, more filings
Ramirez, who held a community celebration regarding Carroll’s decision at the Siesta Key Wine Bar shortly after it was rendered, continues to raise funds to pay for legal fees. She said the amount spent has reached “six figures” and she has no recourse for reimbursement in the state case. She can, however, recoup money in the county case.
Moye’s memo to commissioners indeed noted that the county could be on the hook for Ramirez’s attorney fees, per state statute, which provides for such in cases involving challenges of a comprehensive plan. He also verbally reminded them of that during public comments in the Sept. 12 Sarasota Board of County Commissioners meeting.
But reimbursement won’t occur until after appeals play out, if indeed appeals take place.
“We hope that we continue to prevail in the circuit court case so we can at least be awarded some legal fees,” Ramirez said.
As for the state ruling, Ramirez reports that the state’s First District Court of Appeal has requested her to show cause as it examines the case, bringing additional legal expenditures and chewing up more time. If Sarasota County doesn’t repeal its decision on unlimited density, it faces possible sanctions if deemed by the state’s Administration Commission which consists of the governor and his cabinet. That group heard from Ramirez, her attorney, and attorneys for the county and the developers in Tallahassee back in May and decided to wait on a ruling until any appeal process took place.
“The problem is now we are in limbo in the state case,” Ramirez said. “It seems the appeals court believes the Administration Commission should decide sanctions before it is appealed. I fully expect the [court] to dismiss the appeal as ‘premature.’ Then we may have to go back before the Administration Commission.”
Owner of 3rd hotel pushes ahead
A third high-density hotel was also granted a special exception and approved by the county in October of 2022, it belonging to island resident Dave Balot, co-owner of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in the Village.
Balot’s new endeavor calls for six stories and 112 rooms on 2.15 acres at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., where the old Wells Fargo bank is located.
Acknowledging that he’s not certain how the recent legal rulings impact his project, Balot is plugging along with his desire for approval of a site and development plan – something that gets the ball rolling for approval of things mostly related to infrastructure. He first filed it in December and then again in April.
Said Balot in an email, “30 days after my special exception I spoke to my planner who stated that, since I wasn’t legally challenged, I needed to move forward with my project, as a special exception expires in two years. I then contacted my architect — we hired a civil engineer and a landscape architect to assist us with the site and development plan (basically everything under the first floor, such as electric, gas, stormwater, sewer, etc.).”
But county staff decided this summer to wait on any work on the plan, despite the expiration deadline, because of the legal proceedings concerning the other hotels. It forced Balot to schedule an appeal to be heard at an Aug. 29 commissioners meeting that would be postponed due to Hurricane Idalia. Since then, the county has agreed to work on the plan but not release the permit until more is known on the legal front.
“Basically, move the ball from the 40-yard-line down to the 10-yard-line,” Balot said of his potential progress.
Balot’s hotel was not mentioned in either of Ramirez’s lawsuits or a second lawsuit against both Anderson’s and Kompothecras’ hotels filed by resident Robert Sax, the Marina Del Sol condominium complex where he lives and serves as president, and residents of the 222 Beach Road condominium complex. Judge Stephen Walker combined the two county-related lawsuits earlier this year before recusing himself from the case because of his association with one of Kompothecras’ lawyers.
However, the building limits determined by Carroll are believed to apply to all future hotel-related Siesta Key development scenarios and anything else would require another special exception process unless an appeal, if applicable, overturns Carroll’s ruling.
Regardless, Balot hopes to salvage some things as the county has also given him permission to file an amendment to its comprehensive plan.
“I’m hopeful that I can propose a comp plan that will allow a new hotel or two to be built, without changing the character of the Key, and doing so in a manner that the residents of Siesta Key will feel is acceptable and appropriate,” Balot said. “Time will tell if that happens.”
An amendment to the comprehensive plan would potentially change the county’s ordinances, as opposed to the county simply interpreting what is already on the books to serve its own purposes, in the view of some.
“What I do believe, as I always have, is that a comp plan was, and is, needed to increase the intensity and density on Siesta Key,” Balot said.