Hotel trials likely to combine, begin October

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By John Morton

Consolidation it is, at least schedule-wise — leaning toward probably but with a bit of maybe.
The two separate lawsuits fighting Sarasota County’s approval of two high-density hotels in 2021, with a third approved in 2022, will possibly combine into one trial beginning Oct. 9 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court. Three weeks have been set aside on the court’s calendar for the proceedings.
Judge Stephen Walker, who resides over both matters, made that determination March 17 with the blessing of lawyers for the two plaintiffs, the county’s legal team, and the lawyers for the developers and site owners.

An artist’s rendering for the hotel approved for Calle Miramar. (submitted image)

The cases “have many of the same legal issues, same factual issues,” said David Smolker, the attorney for the group suing the county for the approval of both the eight-story, 170-room Calle Miramar hotel near the Village and the seven-story, 120-room Old Stickney Point Road hotel near the south bridge. That latter project includes a five-story parking garage across the street.
The plaintiffs are resident Robert Sax and the Marina Del Sol condo (near the south-bridge project) and the owners at the 222 Beach Road complex (near the Village project). That case was set for trial on June 12, but Smolker asked for a delay due to other commitments and calendar conflicts that have lessened his ability to prepare his case.
Walker also noted that his calendar, if June 12 wouldn’t work, now had little wiggle room for anything earlier than October.
Shane Costello, who represents the entities that are eager for an outcome so they can potentially begin the building process, questioned Smolker’s need for more time.
“Mr. Smolker and his clients have not produced a shred of discovery,” Costello said, noting the lawsuit was filed in November of 2021, back about a year-and-a-half.
Smolker denied that accusation.

An artist’s rendering of the hotel approved for Old Stickney Point Road. (submitted image)

Meanwhile, another wild card looms. The second lawsuit, filed by resident Lourdes Ramirez, could be addressed by Walker, at least in some fashion, prior to the consolidation date. The judge received a December request from both Sarasota County and Ramirez for a summary judgment, in lieu of a trial, that involved January testimony. However, Walker said he needed more time to make any decision, noting the amount of material he needed to examine was “daunting.” That trial had been set for March 27, had Walker not made a judgment, but that date was come and gone.
Walker could still make such a judgment prior to Oct. 9, and how any sort of ruling could impact the other case remains unknown.
Another challenge for Walker, if the consolidated trial takes place, is how to minimize the amount of time Ramirez’s attorney, Richard Grosso, is needed to participate. Ramirez’s lawsuit involves only the Calle Miramar hotel, near here place of residence, so some proceedings involving the Old Stickney Point Road hotel would not be germane to her issues.
Both lawsuits center around the argument that the county’s Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the Comprehensive Plan has been violated, and that is was created in 1989 to limit residential density and intensity on barrier island’s such as Siesta Key. In essence, the county ignored its own rules, the plaintiffs allege.
In speaking to the Siesta Key Association civic group March 2, Smolker remained hopeful that the judge would come to that conclusion.
“Barrier islands are different – the residents have more at stake. I hope someday the court system will recognize this,” he said.

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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