By John Morton
In relation to the lawsuits against the Sarasota County-approved hotels, the legal carousel keeps turning.
And the ride for Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez gets ever more tedious. And expensive.
Since January, Ramirez – who sued the county in late 2021 – has had representatives go before the 12th Circuit Court on several occasions and even a commission at the state capitol building comprised of members of the governor’s cabinet. Nothing has been ruled upon, however, and a trial set for November combining both Ramirez’s case and another similar lawsuit is still possibly in play.
“Legal costs keep piling up,” Ramirez said. “But that is what the developers count on — they hope to make it a financial burden for citizens to challenge their developments.
“But I’ll keep moving forward.”
On July 7, in the most recent round of activity, attorney Richard Grosso presented on Ramirez’s behalf his opinions on how the county violated its own comprehensive plan when giving the green light in late 2021 for an eight-story, 170-room hotel near the Village along Calle Miramar and later a seven-story, 120-room hotel on Old Stickney Point Road near the south bridge – including a five-story parking garage across the street. In 2022, a third hotel was approved at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., at the location of the former Wells Fargo Bank, with six stories and 112 rooms in the plans.
Unlimited density was allowed by the county’s commissioners as part of the 2021 decision, opening the door for the large hotels. Previous to that, there were limits on the island of 26 rooms per acre and 35 feet of height for such developments.
In the Calle Miramar case, which is the focus of Ramirez’s lawsuit, the 170 rooms would be on .96 acres. The proposed hotel is near where she resides.
A second lawsuit against the county involves all of the hotels and was filed jointly by Robert Sax and the Marina Del Sol condominium, which is located by the Old Stickney Point hotel and where Sax is the president, and by the residents of the complex at 222 Beach Rd., near the Calle Miramar project.
Attorneys for the county and the developers also spoke on July 7, now before Hunter Carroll, a judge with the 12th Circuit Court. That court was asked by both Ramirez and the county late last year for a summary judgment instead of a trial.
The testimony was similar to a hearing in January before Judge Stephen Walker, who in April would recuse himself from the case because of a relationship with one of the lawyers helping to represent Gary Kompothecras, the Siesta Key resident hoping to build the hotel on Old Stickney Point Road.
Carroll said that day he would make a ruling in a few weeks, and what impact that ruling, if any, could have on the slated trail remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, a second Ramirez filing with the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings did receive a ruling in the spring, and it was in Ramirez’s favor. Susan Van Wyk, an administrative law judge, determined on April 3 that the county’s actions were not consistent with its comprehensive plan. That led to a May 23 hearing before the Ron DeSantis-led Florida Administration Commission, where the members would possibly rule on whether Sarasota County could suffer sanctions for its decision unless it’s repealed – sanctions that could impact the state’s contributions to the county in areas such as funding for roads. No such findings against a Florida county have occurred since 1996.
However, once the commission learned that the county planned to appeal Van Wyk’s ruling, which it did by a July 12 deadline, it held off on a ruling.
“We might as well let that run its course,” DeSantis said of the appeal, noting he’d take testimony under advisement.
Ramirez and her attorney both made the trip to Tallahassee, as did attorneys for the county and the developers. Each party was allowed time for a brief presentation.
“Yes, a 10-hour round trip for my one-minute speech,” Ramirez said of her journey. “My attorney flew in for his two-minute speech.
“But it is an important part of the process and, frankly, I’m glad I got to make a speech. I was not nervous until that morning when it hit me about how important this hearing is for my case. Then I saw all the people in the room and all of the cameras, and my heart began to race. I’m so glad I got to read the speech without my voice cracking.”
Here is what Ramirez said to the commission:
“It is not easy for citizens like me to challenge the local government. But I believe strongly that the state laws are in place to protect human life, especially after the close calls we on Siesta Key experienced with Hurricane Charlie, Irma, and most recently Ian.
“I decided to challenge Sarasota County’s new ordinance because I am concerned about the vulnerability of my family, friends, neighbors, and visitors. For these reasons, the commission should require the county to repeal this ordinance that violates our comprehensive plan, as per the administrative law judge, and in doing so make the county follow the state laws that exist to protect life and property.”
Regarding the lack of a yet another decision, Ramirez said:
“I was hoping we can resolve the case this year but it will probably take another year or two for the appeals to be completed. In the meantime, I doubt there will be any progress in developing mega-sized hotels while legal challenges exist.”
One appeal has Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith concerned. The Siesta Key resident, who had yet to be elected to the commission when the hotels were approved and has gone on record of being against the action, feels a battle with the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings is risky. Smith noted that former county attorney Rick Elbrecht confided in him before Elbrecht’s recent retirement that the county had only “about a 10% chance” of winning the appeal. Smith said the county “should not underestimate the seriousness of the DOAH ruling.”
Smith added, “If we lose, sanctions are around the corner. The decision is not to be taken lightly. It could cost this county gravely.”
The county commissioners, however, voted 4-1 in favor of the appeal in June.
How Carroll treats the Van Wyk decision remains unknown. At the end of the July 7 hearing, he said he was not planning on waiting for the Division of Administrative Hearings’ case to go through an appeal before making his decision, also saying the state judge’s ruling “is not binding on me” and that he would determine “if it’s persuasive or not.”