Siesta hotels

Judge Sides With Siesta Key Resident Suing Sarasota County Over Proposed High-Density Hotel

Lourdes Ramirez says she got a “grand prize” win in her battle against high-density hotels on Siesta Key.

By Kim Doleatto August 22, 2023

A rendering of the eight-story, 170-room hotel project that Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez is challenging. 

A major decision in the battle against high-density hotels on Siesta Key came down yesterday. Local circuit court judge Hunter Carroll ruled that a hotel approved by Sarasota County commissioners on Oct 21, 2021, violates the county's Comprehensive Plan, which prohibits increases in density and intensity on the barrier island. The case against the county was brought by Siesta Key resident and advocate Lourdes Ramirez, who called Carroll's decision a “grand prize win.”

It’s the second of such wins. At the state level, administrative law judge Suzanne Van Wyk sided with Ramirez in April when she found the county's removal of density limits on Siesta Key was inconsistent with the county's growth plan. The county has since voted 4-1 to appeal Van Wyk's decision.  

Lourdes Ramirez

Lourdes Ramirez

The background: despite overwhelming opposition in October 2021, Sarasota County commissioners voted to green-light the changing density limits of 26 units per acre on Siesta Key, making possible Robert Anderson’s proposed 170-room, eight-story hotel on just under an acre of land near Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites on Calle Miramar. Anderson's project also called for a three-level, 223-space parking garage, a restaurant, and a rooftop pool and bar. Traffic was proposed to come and go along Calle Miramar. The project’s architect is Sarasota-based Mark Sultana of DSDG Architecture. Three other hotels were also approved by county commissioners at the time, each eschewing the 26 unit-per-acre density limit for transient accommodations.

In response to the commissioners' votes to move forward with the hotels, residents banded together to push for the formation of their own town in hopes of protecting Siesta Key from big development.

While the state lawsuit is about zoning code changes, the circuit court challenge is about the approved mega-hotel itself.  And while three hotels were approved in October 2021, Ramirez's focus was on Anderson’s, which would be built near her home.

On Monday, Carroll concluded that by increasing the number of units above the cap set in 1989—36 per acre, he determined—the proposed hotel density violated the county's 1989 growth plan. 

Carroll sided with Sarasota County on arguments over two other policies, but Ramirez prevailed on what she says is the most important point, which proved the development violated the county's growth plan.

“Every other point pales in comparison. Everything else was just icing on the cake. This is the one we needed to win,” she says. “I would hope this one affects the others."

Anderson had no comment on the court’s decision but did want to clarify that the county was named in the suit, not him.

Ramirez and the developer's attorneys now have 30 days to decide whether they should proceed with a court date scheduled for Nov. 13 to pursue other points the judge had yet to decide upon.

“I suspect [the county] will try to appeal this, as well, but when you have two courts decide this way, why would anyone put up a hotel that violates the comprehensive plan?” Ramirez asks.

And although she is at least “six figures” into the legal battle, she notes the good fortune of her timing, which leaves her unaffected by a new state law.

S.B. 540, which was approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May and has been in effect since July 1, states that “the prevailing party in a challenge to a plan or plan amendment is entitled to recover attorney fees and costs.” This creates an extra layer of uncertainty for people like Ramirez who are challenging a county's decision. If they lose, they have to pay for both parties' legal fees—not just their own. 

Beyond timing, Ramirez’s grateful for the community’s support, which has helped her fundraise and allowed others to voice their opposition.

“It all comes down to public safety,” she says. “Siesta Key has the highest density in the county outside the City of Sarasota core. We only have two exit points and single lanes each way. It’s bad enough because of all the people out here. It [creates] more time for residents and tourists if there’s a need for evacuation. The county has to decide not to put people in danger.

As far as new hotels on the island, she says, “If they stayed at 26 units for an acre, I wouldn’t be complaining. Stick to the density and the intensity." 

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