Judge backs Ramirez on intensity, density

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With trial looming, parties related to hotels have 30 days to disclose their next move

By John Morton

Protest signs lining the streets couldn’t stop the Sarasota County commissioners. Neither could the creation of an anti-hotel group, nor hours of testimony in the county chambers from both residents and experts.
But will the perseverance of one person who instead went the legal route be what it took to possibly stop, or at least alter, the plans to build an eight-story, 170-room hotel – featuring a rooftop bar — on Siesta Key?
And possibly other similar hotels that have also been approved?
“It’s a huge win – a pivotal one for Siesta Key,” Lourdes Ramirez, a 24-year island resident who sued Sarasota County, said of a summary judgment against it that was handed down Aug. 21 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

A happy Lourdes Ramirez holds the ruling by Judge Hunter Carroll near the property where a 170-room, eight-story hotel has been proposed to be built between Calle Miramar and Beach Road. (photo by John Morton)

Judge Hunter Carroll’s decision that stated the hotel approved on Calle Miramar near the Village is too large in terms of building size and the number of rooms in relation to the rules on the books. They come in the form of the county’s Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, and serve as a guide for growth.
A summary judgment, which both Ramirez and the county requested last December, eliminates a jury and puts the decision in the hands of a judge.
Ramirez argued that the county was in violation of its own land-use rules within its comprehensive plan, and Carroll agreed with her on the most consequential of them all – intensity and density.
He sided with the county on two other alleged violations brought by Ramirez and five others remain in limbo.
And while the county’s comprehensive plan has taken on many incarnations, with revisions in 2016 representing its current form, Carroll decided that policies established March 13, 1989 stand as the precedent. At that time, in relation to hotels, building height was limited to 35 feet and the number of rooms per acre was at 26. Carroll in his interpretation would determine the number should be 36.
In summarizing his ruling, Carroll wrote:
“The court concludes that the development order violates Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 because the county’s zoning ordinances and regulations in existence as of March 13, 1989 allowed density at most of 36 hotel units per acre on this site on Siesta Key. Here, the development order allowed for 170 hotel units on a .96-acre site,” Carroll wrote in his ruling. “The development order also violated the intensity requirement of that policy. Plaintiff is entitled to a declaration that the development order is inconsistent with Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 of the county’s existing comprehensive plan.
“The development order, however, does not violate Coastal Policy 1.2.3 or Future Land Use Policy 1.2.6 because those policies contain permissive terms – i.e., encourage and discourage – instead of mandatory terms.
“The court cannot address the other challenges due to the existence of disputed questions of fact.”
Coastal Policy 1.2.3 and Future Land Use Policy 1.2.6 address development in evacuation zones A & B (Siesta Key is in A) and how it should be discouraged.


What’s next?
Now, all parties involved in the case (which includes a second lawsuit against the county involving both the Calle Miramar project and an additional hotel that was approved) are being asked by the judge to decide on how to proceed. A trial that combines both lawsuits has been scheduled for Nov. 13, involving the plaintiffs, the county, and the intervenors – a legal term for the attorneys representing the hotel developers.
Will some or all on the losing end appeal the ruling, come back with revised plans, or abandon their project altogether?
“In the light of the court’s ruling with respect to Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, the parties shall meet and confer as to the next steps, including whether the parties desire the court to enter at this time a final judgment invalidating the development order and precluding the county from permitting development activities pursuant to that development order, or if they wish to proceed to adjudicate the other portions of plaintiff’s challenges first,” Carroll wrote in his ruling. “The parties shall advise the court in writing filed with the court within 30 days as to the parties’ position or positions.”
Ramirez filed in her lawsuit in November of 2021. About a month before that, the commissioners had approved by a 3-2 vote the controversial concept of unlimited density, blowing the roof off the pervious limits for hotels of 26 rooms per acre (since adjusted by Carroll to 36 with his ruling) and 35 feet in height. At the time it opened the door for the subsequent approval of both the Calle Miramar hotel and a second hotel on Old Stickney Point Road.
In the fall of 2022, a third hotel was approved by the county at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd. with plans for six stories and 112 rooms on 2.15 acres. It would be built where the Wells Fargo bank once operated.
Previous to the county’s votes of approval, the only hotel on the Key was two stories in height and consisted of 55 rooms in what is now the Siesta Key Beach Resort & Suites.
The Ramirez lawsuit involved only the Calle Miramar hotel, which is proposed to sit on just .96 acres of land that is currently home to the addresses of 214, 220, and 226 Calle Miramar and 221 Beach Rd. Two single-family houses sit on Calle Miramar, and one single-family house that is condemned is on the Beach Road side of the lot.

A victory in Tallahassee first
In April, Ramirez received a separate favorable ruling from a Division of Administrative Hearings judge on the state level who also said Sarasota County’s actions were “inconsistent” with its own comprehensive plan.
Beyond problems with the hotel’s size, Judge Suzanne Van Wyk also agreed that hurricane evacuation could be hampered by the influx of people staying on the Key.
“There are public safety issues,” Ramirez said of her concerns she voiced in her state case. “You are telling me we’re going to have to evacuate even more people here? We have only two exit points and one road connecting them.”
“Did you know that Siesta Key, besides the downtown, has the most density in Sarasota County?”
The county has appealed that state ruling, and could suffer sanctions if a panel led by the governor finds it in violation of its own policies — provided it loses the appeal.
Ramirez said the county must get out of the mindset of mounting appeals and simply rescind its approval of the hotels.

“The county should stop pursuing the case. Hopefully it has learned a lesson. How many of these cases does it want to lose?” she said. “It’s a shameful waste of the taxpayers’ money.”
Ramirez considers herself a formidable foe and says she’s in for the long haul.
“I’ve been fighting for Siesta Key for 20 years, protecting it against any more density,” said Ramirez, who is the former president of the Siesta Key Association civic group. “I didn’t have any fear with this, but rather a strong belief in myself. I know the comp plan policies for Siesta Key like the back of my hand. I’m qualified.
“There are many, many cases where the county has abused our island and I have stood up to them all. I have done so much research, going through so many ordinances. I would like to put together a book with the information I’ve gathered to help us with the next time they try to do this.”
An update in 2016 to the comprehensive plan further placed emphasis on the unique characteristics and challenges associated with a barrier island and its relationship with development, Carroll concluded, and wrote that as a result Siesta Key is still “subject to the intensity and density limits provided in Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1.
Carroll also found that plans for the Calle Miramar hotel, at 80 feet in height, also exceeded the limit of occupying no more than 20 percent of the parcel for buildings between 75 and 85 feet, in accordance with the county’s regulations. As a result, he said the proposed setbacks were also inadequate.

An artist’s rendering of the eight-story, 170-room hotel approved by the county for less than an acre along Calle Miramar. (submitted image)

A hand-off
Earlier this year, Carroll inherited the lawsuit when judge Stephen Walker recused himself due to his previous relationship with an attorney representing Siesta Key resident Gary Kompothecras, who has been approved to build a seven-story, 120-room hotel on 1.17 acres at the corner of Old Stickney Point and Peacock roads, near the island’s south bridge. A five-story parking garage would be constructed nearby to serve the hotel.
Walker, who decided to combine the cases into one trial, heard testimony from all parties on the Ramirez lawsuit in January and conducted other subsequent hearings before bowing out in April. Carroll then heard similar testimony July 7 and had his ruling in six weeks.
The second lawsuit against the county was also filed in November of 2021 by Marina Del Sol condominium, which is across the street from the Kompothecras hotel site, and its residents James Wallace and Robert Sax (Wallace has since dropped out). Joining them were members of the condominium called 222 Beach Road, which sits across the street from the Calle Miramar site.
Robert Anderson, a Sarasota Realtor, is the developer of the Calle Miramar hotel. When reached for comment, he declined to provide one.
Said Kompothecras when asked for comment, “Let’s just say that this is only round one.”
The approved Midnight Pass Road hotel is being created by island resident Dave Balot, who also is co-owner of the Siesta Key Beach Resort & Suites on Ocean Boulevard in the Village – just two properties away from the Calle Miramar site. At one point, the Siesta Key Beach Resort & Suites had also applied for approval for the creation of a new hotel, hoping to raze its buildings and rebuild with 170 rooms. It has since put its application on hold.
Said Balot, who has already twice altered his Midnight Pass Road hotel designs, of Carroll’s decision: “I think Judge Carroll did his job and explained it very well. Legally, I’m not sure how things move forward from here, but I look forward to working with the county staff and again, if allowed, filing a comprehensive plan amendment that supports my project while maintaining the character of the Key.”
Attorneys representing Sarasota County do not comment on legal matters involved in ongoing litigation.

Opponents rejoice
As for Sax, the condo association president at Marina Del Sol, he called Ramirez’s successful ruling “a great day for the residents of Siesta Key.”
He added, “Congratulations to Lourdes and her team for putting forward such a very strong case proving that the county erred in its approval for these mega hotel projects on Siesta Key. Judge Carroll got things exactly right in his ruling that the county’s approval of a high-density and high-intensity hotel on Siesta Key was inconsistent with the clear development restrictions imposed by the county’s own comprehensive plan.
“It is my hope, but sadly not my expectation, that going forward the developers will choose to interact in a truly meaningful close way with the neighborhood residents to put forward a plan for development which benefits all the parties while staying within the regulatory limitations and protections of the existing comprehensive plan.”
And Robert Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Coalition that was created solely to fight the hotels and also a board member of the Siesta Key Association, which also publicly opposed the hotels, said he believes the ruling “removes the foundation of the ordinance that removed density limits on Siesta Key and restores the commercial-general limits” of Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, thus overturning the county’s approval of the hotels.
Hotel use is only allowed in commercial-general zoning, where all the proposed hotels are located, via a special exception. The county granted that designation in each case.
Attorney Richard Grosso, a land-use expert hired by Ramirez, said the court system was the only way to undermine the commissioners.
“Since the developer’s arguments were moved out of the receptive audience of a county commission and were subject to cross examination and actual legal analysis by a judge, the developer is 0-for-2 and Ms. Ramirez is 2 and 0. We urge the county to accept these rulings and rescind the unlawful development approval,” he said.
Added Ramirez, “Everyone knows you can’t increase density and intensity on barrier islands. Once and for all, the county needs to realize it should stop putting money before people.”

The vacant lot, with a view from Beach Road, where the hotel is approved for construction. (photo by John Morton)
John Morton
Author: John Morton

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