By Phil Colpas
The 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Steven Walker heard a request from Siesta Key hotel developers April 25 to expedite a lawsuit challenging whether the Sarasota County Commission had the authority to grant special exceptions requested by the builders. The hotel developers, who are the defendants in the lawsuit, wanted the case heard before the end of the year. Judge Walker denied the developer’s request without prejudice, urging both the plaintiff and defendant in this case to move along as swiftly as possible.
The Sarasota County Commission on Oct. 27, by a vote of 3-2, decided to remove the limit on the number of hotel rooms allowed per acre (commissioners Nancy Detert and Christian Ziegler voted against). With the density issue resolved, developers were now free to proceed with a proposed eight-story, 170-room hotel to be built on less than 1 acre of land between Beach Road and Calle Miramar near the Siesta Key Village.In addition to determining that transient accommodations are not residential units in commercial-zone districts for density calculation, the commission’s 3-2 vote also found the ordinance consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and allowed transient accommodations and an increase in height up to 80 feet in the Commercial General/Siesta Key Overlay District.
The plaintiff in this case is longtime Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez, who filed her lawsuit in November, contending that the county did not have the authority to grant exceptions that violated the County Comprehensive Plan, which capped the number of rooms at 26 per acre of property on the barrier islands; and that this added density would also cause traffic and safety problems.
“It’s crazy for them to think they’ll be able to execute an evacuation without a problem, especially when they keep increasing traffic,” she said at the time. “I’m not budging from no density increase.”
Ramirez’s counsel suggested she focus her efforts on the hotel nearest where she lives.
“I wanted to challenge both (hotels),” she said, the other being Gary Kompothecras’ seven-story, 120-room hotel (with five-story parking garage) on Old Stickney Point Road. But because she was advised as a civil plaintiff to be in proximity of the violation for which she was suing, Ramirez limited her lawsuit to the Calle Miramar hotel near Siesta Key Village, which is located less than a mile from her home.
“This is not about Siesta Key and hotels, this is about the county not following the law,” Ramirez said. “If the commission thinks they can ignore the comprehensive plan, they’ll do it whenever they can.”
The Siesta Key Coalition, which was formed in 2020 to limit high-density construction projects on Siesta Key, has steadfastly fought any changes to the law affecting density on barrier islands beyond those established in the county’s 1989 Comprehensive Plan, which it says this project would violate.
Of the more than 50 people who signed up to address the commissioners for five minutes each at the Oct. 27 public hearing, the lion’s share was opposed to eliminating the hotel room density limit, citing the county’s 1989 Comprehensive Plan, which set the limit at 26 hotel rooms per acre on commercially zoned property on barrier islands.
“Why is an owner of less than 1 acre on Siesta Key allowed to amend the Unified Development Code in a manner that will have countywide impact?” asked Patricia Petruff, land-use attorney with Dye Harrison, at the Aug. 19 Sarasota County Planning Commission public hearing on the project. “Most people don’t even know about it. There need to be more public hearings to educate people about what is going on.”
Shane T. Costello, an attorney with Hill, Ward & Henderson in Tampa, represented the defendants in the hearing. The trial remains slated for March 2023.