Judge gives no timeline after hearing Ramirez case
By John Morton
The interpretation of codes, ordinances and comprehensive plans dominated the four hours of testimony heard by Judge Stephen Walker of Sarasota County’s 12th Judicial Circuit Court on Jan. 6, as both parties in a lawsuit involving the county’s approval of a high-density hotel hoped for a summary judgment.
At the end, not only did Walker not give a judgment but said he had no specific date in mind, noting he had “a lot of material to go over.”
So, the fate of the eight-story, 170-room hotel slated to be built between Calle Miramar and Beach Road, just shy of the Siesta Key Village, remains in limbo. If no ruling or only a partial ruling is made by March 27, a jury trial on the matter remains a possibility. Both plaintiff Lourdes Ramirez and lawyers for the county had requested the judgment in lieu of a trial.
Ramirez contends that Sarasota County commissioners violated their own comprehensive plan last October when they approved the hotel, which will sit on .96 of one acre. With that in mind, the Calle Miramar hotel equates to 177 rooms per a single acre.
The 1989 comprehensive plan states that only 26 dwellings per acre are allowed, and despite revisions over the years (including as recent as 2016) that number has not changed. However, the true meaning of many ordinances attached to the plan – namely Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 – were under heavy scrutiny. Debated throughout out the process has been whether hotel rooms are considered dwellings.
David Pearce, the county’s assistant attorney, provided examples of ordinances dating back to 1975 that indicated, in his opinion, that traditional hotel rooms are not dwelling units because they don’t have kitchens.
Prior to the hotel vote, the commissioners approved an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (it defines land-use and zoning regulations) that opened the door to the notion of unlimited density. The mindset was that hotels fell into the category of being commercial entities, not residential dwellings.
“Would this hotel have been allowed in 1989?” Pearce asked. “Yes.”
Attorney Richard Grosso argued on Ramirez’s behalf that most land-use ordinances put in place throughout the years were done so to actually discourage hotels and overdevelopment. Since the Calle Miramar hotel has been approved, two more have also received the green light.
“Never was the intention unlimited density – to build whatever you can fit,” Grosso said. “There’s no way. If it was, why did they have to change the code?
Also, Ramirez’s lawsuit argues that county leaders didn’t follow the proper procedures in reaching their decisions.
“If the makeup of the current commission wants mega hotels on Siesta Key, it needs to amend its comprehensive plan,” Grosso said.
Ramirez’s case argues other points, including that the influx of guests to an already cramped area will hinder hurricane evacuation efforts. The 1981 amendment to the comprehensive plan, Gross said, addressed this issue by suggesting that development be carefully limited on barrier islands.
The county is facing another hotels-related lawsuit at this time, it being filed late last year shortly after Ramirez did so. Resident Robert Sax, his Marina Del Sol condo complex (near the south bridge), and the 222 Beach Road complex (near the Village) have teamed up to dispute the approval of not only the Calle Miramar hotel (being built by developer Robert Anderson) but the seven-story, 120-room hotel approved at the corner of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road (being built by resident Gary Kompothecras).
That second project also includes a separate five-story parking garage across the street on Stickney Point Road.
That case is set for a June trial, also under Walker’s jurisdiction.