In this year’s Sarasota County citizen opinion survey, new development was named among Sarasotans’ top concerns. And Siesta Key resident and advocate Lourdes Ramirez put that concern to action when she filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Sarasota County for violating land-use restrictions on the barrier island.
It all stems from a county commission meeting in October, in which commissioners OK'd a 170-room, eight-story hotel project at the intersection of Calle Miramar and Beach Road in Siesta Key Village. The project also includes a three-level, 223-space parking garage, a restaurant, a rooftop pool and a bar. Traffic is proposed to come and go along Calle Miramar. The hotel is one of four proposed hotels for the key, and one of two of the four which have been green-lighted by commissioners thus far. Ramirez focused on addressing this hotel in particular since she lives closer to it.
The site of the proposed hotel, on less than one acre, could accommodate 26 units in a 35-foot tall, three-story building under existing regulations. Despite dozens of public speakers who shared their concerns with commissioners, the project was OK’d for almost seven times that density and more than twice the height, at 80 feet high. As such, the move to allow such increases violates the comprehensive plan, according to the lawsuit filed by Ramirez.
The Sarasota County comprehensive plan guides the development of land, economic growth, resource protection, and more over the course of time, creating a point of reference for how to grow responsibly.
The plan outlines special limits for Sarasota County’s barrier islands stating that “intensity and density of the Barrier Islands of Sarasota shall not exceed that allowed by zoning ordinances and regulations existing as of March 13, 1989.”
Echoing residents who spoke against the applicant’s proposed project at the commissioners’ October meeting, Ramirez says, “It’s a public safety issue. With all that added traffic, how will fire trucks and ambulances get in? How would we handle a hurricane evacuation? It would only take a Category 1 hurricane to put most of the key under water, and when you add climate change, the risk is likely. They violated density and intensity rules. The hotel is just too big for the parcel."
Ramirez, who is also president of Siesta Key Community, a volunteer advocacy group that aims to educate the public on preservation and to protect the barrier island, has put down a chunk of her own money to get the lawsuit going but has also started a fundraising campaign to help cover the ensuing costs. “I’ve gotten a great response since it impacts all of us. It’s a community-wide effort,” she says.
As for the county, a spokesperson said that Sarasota County commissioners and staff cannot respond to media once a lawsuit has been filed as this is considered a quasi-judicial matter. The county has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.
Has a resident successfully challenged a similar county decision before?
On September 15 this year, in Walton County, Florida, the First District Court of Appeal issued a landmark opinion in the Imhoff v. Walton case, supporting a citizen’s right to challenge development orders that are inconsistent with its provisions. In 2017, Walton County approved the development of the Cypress Lake commercial and residential development, violating the county’s comprehensive plan.
In 2002 in Pinecrest Lakes, Florida, a homeowner challenged the county’s decision to approve rezoning land to make way for apartment buildings in the Pinecrest Lakes, Inc. v. Shidel case. While both parties went through the appeals process, the developer moved forward with multiple buildings despite a final decision. Ultimately, the rezoning was found inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, and the trial court ordered the developer to demolish what had been built, leading to $3.3 million dollars in losses.
Richard Grosso, who consulted Shidel during the case, is now Ramirez’s consultant. She hired the Collins Law Group to represent her.
On Siesta Key, another similar hotel project on Old Stickney Point proposed by Gary Kompothecras, the founder of the 1-800-ASK-GARY medical referral service, was approved by county commissioners in early November and has not been challenged in court. But Ramirez says she expects a fellow Siesta Key resident who lives closer to that parcel to soon do so.
If Ramirez’s challenge to the zoning change is successful, it would likely push Kompothecras’ project to revisit density and height restrictions. Ramirez expects the other two hotel proposals that have yet to be voted on by county commissioners, would probably be “pushed back,” she says.
“We need to make sure the county follows the law. If they don’t do it now, and if they're not challenged, they’ll just keep disregarding it,” she says.