By Phil Colpas
In the relentless tug of war that often pits developers vs. property owners, the last three rounds on Siesta Key have gone to the developers, with two large-scale hotel projects and a four-unit beach condo recently greenlighted by the county commission. Now some residents are firing back in court.
Two lawsuits from Siesta Key residents question whether the Sarasota County Commission had the authority to grant special exceptions requested by the builders of two proposed hotels.
Longtime Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez was first to file suit Nov. 24, contending 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 will 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. “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,” she said. 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 170-room hotel at Calle Miramar and Beach Road in Siesta Key Village, which is located less than a mile from her home.
Ramirez urged both participation and caution in the upcoming 2022 elections, where both chairman Alan Maio’s (District 4, including most of Siesta Key) and vice-chair Christian Ziegler’s (District 2, including a small northern part of Siesta Key) seats will be up for grabs. “Please, someone, step up to the plate. We need grassroots candidates who care about upholding the law and are not beholden to developers,” she said.
“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 county didn’t follow the procedure with Siesta Promenade. Now that they got away with that, they want to take it to the next level.”
Previously approved by the county, Siesta Promenade will feature 414 apartments/condominiums, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space, and 7,000 square feet of office space. It is being built on the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road across 24 acres.
But there’s a catch: That project’s approval hinges on whether an additional traffic light is installed at Avenue B/Avenue C and Stickney Point Road, which brings us to our next lawsuit.
Shortly after Ramirez filed her lawsuit, another Siesta Key resident filed a lawsuit on Nov. 29, this one by James Wallace, who has been a resident of Siesta Key since 1964.
Wallace said he is also contesting the installation of the traffic light, but thus far has not been granted standing, or alleged a sufficient legal interest and injury to participate in the case. Wallace filed an appeal on this decision Dec. 15.
“Even though there’s litigation, they have already started turning it into a full-blown intersection,” Wallace said. “If we win the lawsuit, they have to put it back the way it was.”
Wallace’s hotel lawsuit targets both the 170-room Siesta Village hotel and Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ 120-room hotel and parking garage project at Old Stickney Point and Peacock roads. Wallace was joined as plaintiffs by the Marina Del Sol condominium complex, located at 1312 Old Stickney Rd. near the Kompothecras project, and resident Robert Sax along with the 222 Beach Road Owners Association, located near the Calle Miramar project.
In his complaint, Wallace alleges that the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) acted illegally and in violation of their own procedures by adopting the Land Development Code changes without first amending their Comprehensive Plan policy which limits hotel room density to a 26 units per acre maximum on Siesta Key.
When the commission approved these hotels, they were selling public beach access as part of the proposal, when in fact there isn’t sufficient public access and the vast majority of beaches are private, Wallace said.
“FDOT doesn’t have a land-use case for barrier islands,” he said. “They’ve done no traffic analysis whatsoever of the impact these hotels will have on pedestrians, especially at the corner of Old Stickney Point and Midnight Pass roads.”
“Their behavior is just unbelievable,” said Wallace of the county commissioners, “and I for one am sick of it. People are going to die because of this; that’s negligence. How are you going to feel when it shows up in the paper that you were responsible for a decision that cost someone their life?”