Meanwhile, local judge recuses himself from other 2 lawsuits filed; potential trial now moved to Nov. 13, per new judge
By John Morton
How much it impacts the upcoming Sarasota County trial, if at all, is yet to be seen, but Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez hopes an April 3 state ruling in her favor will help derail the approval of three high-density hotels on the island.
It was then that administrative law judge Suzanne Van Wyk with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings sided with Ramirez in saying the county’s removal of a density cap regarding transient accommodations was inconsistent with its comprehensive plan that serves as its blueprint for growth. Prior to the county’s 2021 approval of hotels at Calle Miramar (170 rooms), Old Stickney Point Road (120 rooms) and, in 2022, Midnight Pass Road (112 rooms), the number of rooms per acre was in general limited to 26 rooms per acre. The 170 rooms proposed for the Calle Miramar hotel, which Ramirez is targeting in a different lawsuit against the county, would be created on just shy of a single acre of land.
Sarasota County and the developer had 30 days to appeal the ruling, which Ramirez expected would occur. Still, she hopes it packs a punch later.
“I think it’s going to go a long way,” Ramirez said of the ruling, looking ahead to a combined trial now moved to Nov. 13 at the earliest where two separate lawsuits are challenging the county’s actions. “I can’t imagine a judge saying, ‘I don’t want to know about it.’”
The administrative judge could not rule on the hotels themselves, but rather the ordinance change. It’s the potential November trial that will likely determine whether the hotels can be built as planned.
Ramirez is suing to only stop the Calle Miramar hotel, which is near her residence, while a second lawsuit filed by the 222 Beach Road complex (also near Calle Miramar hotel and Robert Sax and the Marina Del Sol complex (near the Old Stickney Point hotel) takes on two hotels.
If the county loses, the third hotel at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., at the site of the old Wells Fargo bank, would also be impacted as it too benefited from the change in ordinance.
Ramirez feels the state ruling will serve in the form of additional information she calls “substantial authority” during the October trial, more so than actual evidence.
It also serves as a feel-good moment long needed by island residents, she said.
“Siesta Key has been battered. There hasn’t been a win, no matter what,” Ramirez said of what she considers several setbacks in the hands of county commissioners. “We tried, but only heard no. No one at the county stood up for us – the residents have had to do it themselves.
“Finally, I think they understand that there are a lot of issues out here. And we finally have a win. We needed it.”
More legal twists
Meanwhile, the judge with the 12th Circuit Court assigned to both county hotel-related lawsuits, who on March 17 ruled to combine them, recused himself from the case just four days later.
On March 21, Stephen Walker filed a notice of recusal, citing a personal and professional relationship with the legal team representing, at various times, entities owned by Siesta Key resident Gary Kompothecras, He is the developer of the Old Stickney Point Road hotel.
Attorney Charles Bailey of that firm represented Kompothecras’ hotel proposal during the county’s hearings in 2021 that involved both the Sarasota Planning Commission and the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners, which had the decisive vote.
When asked for comment on Walker’s decision to recuse himself, Kompothecras declined.
Sax also declined to comment specifically on the decision but did say “I have full confidence in the judicial system to protect the interests of the residents of Siesta Key in accordance with the clear intent and provisions of the county’s own comprehensive plan.”
Walker twice held hearings regarding Ramirez’s case, including the March 17 ruling to combine the lawsuits. That of course involved both cases, the second of which involves Kompothecras.
On Jan. 6, Walker heard hours of testimony from both Ramirez’s legal team and the county’s legal team for a summary judgment (one that doesn’t involve a jury), of which both parties had requested. Walker did not make such a ruling, and never gave a time frame on when, or if, one would be made. He would eventually combine the trials, but even when doing so did not rule out a summary judgment involving Ramirez – a judgment that could have eliminated a need for any trials if the county was found in violation.
Said Ramirez, in part, of Walker’s decision, “In recusing himself from the mega-hotel lawsuits, it was quite a surprise since I expected to hear from judge Walker on our motion for summary judgment. But I appreciate judge Walker’s honesty.”
Ramirez said she believed all testimony from both her team and the county would remain valid during the transition.
Judge Hunter Carroll was assigned to replace Walker. However, on April 4, Carroll himself filed an order of disclosure with the court, explaining that while before becoming a judge he provided representation in matters involving entities associated with Kompothecras.
Carroll, as of April 24, had not recused himself from the case.
Ramirez, however, worries the scenario could turn into another obstacle.
“Just when I see the goal line, they keep moving back the goalposts,” she said.