Office of County Attorney recommended the action
With no comments during their regular meeting on Oct. 24, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously to drop their Florida First District Court of Appeal challenge of a state administrative law judge’s Final Order in April that went against the county in a case related to construction of a high-rise hotel on Siesta Key.
They also agreed not to appeal an Aug. 21, 12th Judicial Circuit Court ruling in a case involving the Oct. 27, 2021 County Commission approval of an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. That amendment eliminated the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential purposes throughout most of the county.
Further, the commissioners this week voted unanimously to rescind that October 2021 UDC amendment.
The plaintiff in both of those cases — Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez — contended that the board’s approval of that UDC modification was a violation of Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. That policy limits residential density and intensity on the county’s barrier islands to the level in place as of March 13, 1989.
In an Oct. 24 memo that County Attorney Joshua Moye provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting this week, Moye pointed out, “Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll and Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk [who issued the April ruling] both rejected [county] arguments regarding the interpretation of Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1. As discussed in [a] prior [Office of the County Attorney] memorandum, an appeal of Judge Carroll’s decision would be an uphill battle.”
After approving the UDC amendment on Oct. 27, 2021, the commissioners also approved — on a 3-2 vote — an eight-story, 170-room hotel on Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village.
Circuit Judge Carroll ruled that the highest hotel/motel room count he could determine possible, based on decades-old versions of the Comprehensive Plan, would be 36 per acre. The Calle Miramar hotel would stand on 0.96 acres. (See the related article in this issue.)
Finally, the Oct. 24 vote included no appeal of a Final Judgment that Carroll is expected eventually to file in a second Circuit Court case that four plaintiffs filed in November 2021 — just days after Ramirez initiated her Circuit Court case — to fight both the Calle Miramar hotel and a second high-rise hotel, which the commissioners approved on Nov. 2, 2021 for a 1.17-acre site at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road on south Siesta Key. The developer of that hotel is Siesta businessman Gary Kompothecras.
Carroll had consolidated the second complaint with Ramirez’s for potential trial in November, if he had not issued a “summary judgment” ruling for Ramirez or for the county prior to the start of the trial period.
County Attorney Moye had recommended the Oct. 24 votes, which Commissioner Michael Moran combined into one motion. Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on Siesta Key, seconded the motion.
It took only about 40 seconds for Moye to reference the recommendations in the Oct. 24 memo and then for the motion to be made, seconded and approved.
The action came as the commissioners were running well behind schedule on their Oct. 24 agenda. For example, they heard approximately 70 minutes of comments during their Open to the Public period at the beginning of the meeting. (See the related article in this issue about county payments to the American Library Association and the Florida Library Association.)
As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, Moye’s memo regarding the Siesta Key high-rise hotel litigation also warned of the potential that the county is facing “several hundred thousand dollars” in attorneys’ fees in the Circuit Court litigation, which — he noted — had “been pending for almost two years and included extensive discovery and multiple court hearings.”
“Discovery” refers to the process through which the parties in a lawsuit work to gather materials that they believe will support their cases.
The Oct. 24 memo from the Office of the County Attorney explained that Section 163.3215 of the Florida Statues “provides for an award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in a consistency challenge like those in the Ramirez lawsuit [in Circuit Court]” and in the second complaint filed against the county over the Siesta hotels.
In a recent email update to her supporters, Ramirez announced that her attorneys have filed for the award of those fees. Judge Carroll has scheduled a Dec. 1 hearing — both in-person and via Zoom — to hear arguments on that motion.
The Oct. 24 memo from Moye did note that Ramirez’s challenge of the Comprehensive Plan consistency, through the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH), does not provide for attorney’s fees for the prevailing party.
Moye also wrote, “In our professional opinion, pursuit of any appeal in [the] Ramirez lawsuit or the [second Siesta hotel lawsuit] without an agreement from the Intervenors/Developers to assume the risk associated with additional costs and attorneys’ fees would not be warranted.”
The developers of both the Calle Miramar and south Siesta hotels were allowed to join the DOAH challenge and the Circuit Court cases. In legal terms, they were referenced as “Intervenors” in those actions.
Moreover, Moye wrote, “The Intervenors/Developers in the Ramirez lawsuit and the [second hotel] lawsuit [in Circuit Court] … have indicated plans to seek an amendment to the comprehensive plan and Unified Development Code.”
As the News Leader reported last week, as of Oct. 9, two letters had been sent to the county’s Planning and Development Services Department staff with proposed Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments that would enable hotels with more than 100 rooms each to be built on Siesta Key.