Ramirez readying for new legal fight if necessary, she tells supporters
Almost exactly two years after she filed her first legal challenge over the Sarasota County Commission’s amendment of county zoning and land-use regulations to allow for high-rise hotels on Siesta Key, Lourdes Ramirez has made it clear that she is prepared for her next potential fight.
Having won both the legal challenges she launched in late 2021, Ramirez is urging supporters to join her in downtown Sarasota on Nov. 28 when the County Commission will be asked whether it wants its Planning Division staff to process one or more proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments that would facilitate hotel construction on parcels zoned for commercial purposes.
Since the Planning Division staff addresses amendments on a specific cycle, the County Commission has to vote on any request for “out-of-cycle” processing. All three of the Comprehensive Plan proposals submitted to the county’s Planning and Development Services Department came in out of cycle.
As the issue will be a discussion item on the Nov. 28 agenda, anyone who wants to offer comments on it will have the opportunity to do so only at the Open to the Public period at the start of that meeting. Therefore, it is likely that, for the third time in recent weeks, the commissioners will be facing a large audience as they begin their session.
The Nov. 28 meeting will be conducted at the County Administration Center standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in Sarasota.
The item is No. 37, following the commissioners’ reports to their colleagues. However, the chair of the board has the authority to move up an item on an agenda. Thus, it is not possible to predict when a certain item will be heard.
In a Nov. 16 newsletter to her supporters, Ramirez wrote, “There are three mega-hotels being proposed that can only happen if the County agrees to remove or change the protections for Siesta Key as listed in the Comprehensive Plan [which guides growth in the community]. … The Commissioners can agree to let three mega-hotel proposals go forward or perhaps pick one,” she added. “We encourage you to be there to show your support of our efforts even if it’s for an hour!”
Ramirez continued, “This is just the first step in the process that may take months to complete. But we need to show our opposition to increasing density on our fragile barrier island now!”
She encouraged opponents of the Comprehensive Plan amendment process to meet other Siesta Key residents at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 28 on Ringling Boulevard. “Wear White tops to show unity,” she wrote.
As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, when county staff was working a couple of years ago with developers of two high-rise hotels proposed for Siesta Key, staff ultimately concurred with Sarasota attorney William Merrill III that national standards designate hotel rooms as a commercial purpose. Thus, Merrill told the commissioners seated on Oct. 27, 2021, the rooms should not be counted for residential density purposes.
County regulations allowed only 26 rooms — referenced as “transient accommodations” — per acre on property zoned for commercial purposes in most of the unincorporated areas of the county.
The commissioners ended up voting 3-2 to approve an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) to achieve what Merrill sought on behalf of his clients, who wanted to build an eight-story, 170 room hotel on four parcels comprising 0.96 acres between Beach Road and Calle Miramar.
Opponents of the hotel pointed to the fact that it takes only three votes to amend the UDC, which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations, while a supermajority — four votes — is required to amend the Comprehensive Plan.
On Oct. 27, 2021, then-Commissioners Nancy Detert and Christian Ziegler voted against the UDC amendment and the hotel project.
In early April, Ramirez won her challenge of the UDC amendment that she had filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH). The administrative law judge, Suzanne Van Wyk, wrote at length in her Final Order that the county’s Comprehensive Plan recognized the vulnerability of the barrier islands to hurricane damage. The UDC amendment, Van Wyk concluded, violated Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the Comprehensive Plan, which limits residential density to that in place on the county’s barrier islands as of March 13, 1989.
After analyzing county documents and testimony, Van Wyk wrote, she found that the county’s 1981 Comprehensive Plan “specifically discusses the Barrier Islands as an area of special concern, acknowledging the ‘problems associated with development on the barrier islands,’ including ‘the detrimental effect of building along the active beach areas’ and ‘difficulties of evacuating large numbers of people from the Keys in time of emergency.”
Moreover, she noted, that 1981 plan described Siesta Key as “ ‘highly developed’ and ‘contain[ing] some of the County’s most intensive residential development.’ ” That plan “then states that it ‘recognizes the existing development represents the maximum levels of development on the Keys[.]’ (emphasis added).”
Further, Van Wyk wrote, “The data and analysis supporting the current Comprehensive Plan indicate that the Barrier Island designation in itself limits development to existing densities and intensities of use, not just to the existing types of use.”
In late August, after Ramirez won her 12th Judicial Circuit Court case against the county over the UDC amendment, new County Attorney Joshua Moye provided the county commissioners a memo explaining Circuit Judge Hunter Carroll’s decision. Moye added, “Any appeal of [the DOAH ruling in favor of Ramirez], appeal of Judge [Hunter] Carroll’s decisions, or continuation of any litigation in the circuit court will be an uphill battle.”
Then Moye pointed out, “There is the possibility of a legislative fix which amends the County’s comprehensive plan.”
The three proposed amendments
On Oct. 2, one of those proposed “legislative fixes” was submitted in a letter from Philip DiMaria, a planner with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department. It was a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would eliminate the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential purposes, like the 2021 UDC amendment.
DiMaria explained that he was representing Benderson Development Co., which owns commercial space in Siesta Village, as well as the developer of the planned hotel on Calle Miramar, RE/MAX Realtor Robert Anderson Jr.
In his letter, DiMaria wrote that Benderson believes county staff should “rely on existing height, bulk, setback and other commercial development standards and requirements” in the UDC, instead of residential density calculations, to determine whether a project is appropriate.
DiMaria also pointed out, “Sarasota County is home to Siesta Key, a nationally and internationally recognized destination, drawing around 350,000 visitors every year. This puts an immense demand on public infrastructure and utilities, and encouraging sensible development of transient accommodations in areas like Siesta Key would concentrate tourists within walking distance of their destinations, reducing the number of cars coming into and off of the Key each day and encouraging a walkable community. The Economic Development Element of the Comprehensive Plan expressly acknowledges and underscores the importance of tourism to Sarasota County’s economy, and Goal 7 charges Sarasota County with maintaining its international legacy of tourism as an economic development strength. The proposed text amendments would further Sarasota County’s efforts and progress in that regard.”
The Benderson Comprehensive Plan amendment also calls for the following:
- No more than 15% of the total, combined acreage of the parcels zoned Commercial General and Commercial Intensive in the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations (SKOD) “shall be developed as transient accommodations; and
- “In no event shall new transient accommodations be located on the beaches of Siesta Key.”
The second Comprehensive Plan amendment was outlined in a Sept. 28 letter to Osterhoudt from Katie LaBar, a senior project manager at the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota, on behalf of businessman Dave Balot. He is the individual who won unanimous County Commission support in October 2022 for an approximately 112-room hotel on 2.15 acres standing at 5810 Midnight Pass Road — property that formerly was home to a Wells Fargo Bank.
Balot essentially reprised a Comprehensive Plan amendment his development team had submitted to the county as he began work on his project — before the County Commission vote on the UDC amendment in October. 2021. Balot’s new proposed amendment would limit hotel and motel rooms to 52 per acre on property zoned Commercial General. Originally, it also called for that provision to apply just to parcels comprising 1 or more acres. However, Balot told the News Leader that he had decided to drop the latter requirement.
The final proposal came from the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, which submitted its original amendment to county staff in May 2021. The Chamber’s Oct. 19 letter calls for a maximum of 52 hotel or motel rooms per acre, with a maximum of 75, on property zoned Commercial General in the Siesta Key Overlay District. Chamber leaders also are seeking a new Transportation Policy in the Comprehensive Plan that would require the development of a “Siesta Key Traffic Model that is designed for the unique traffic patterns of the barrier island … with the capability … to determine traffic impact analyses for all modes of transportation of proposed rezoning, special exceptions, and critical area plans on Siesta Key and the access evacuation roads.”
The political and community considerations
It typically takes months for a new Comprehensive Plan amendment to be processed and then go through the required state review before the County Commission can give it a vote of final approval.
With three County Commission seats — Districts 1, 3 and 5 — up for election in 2024, the timing question for the hotel amendments is whether one could be approved before Nov. 5, 2024, the date of the General Election.
As the News Leader has pointed out, Commissioner Neil Rainford, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the District 3 seat in June, to replace the late Commissioner Nancy Detert, received $15,000 in contributions from Benderson Development in his first campaign finance filing with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office.
His opponent, former Sheriff Tom Knight of Venice, had not received any funds from Benderson, as evident in his first quarterly report, filed in early October.
Thus far, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger is unopposed for the District 5 seat, and former county Planning Commissioner Teresa Mast, who is seeking the District 1 seat, has far outraised her opponents. In fact, one of them, former Florida House member and Commissioner Ray Pilon, dropped out of the race earlier this year. He told the News Leader that he knew how much money it would take to win a seat, and he saw futility in staying in the race.
Through the end of September, Mast had raised $207,970, including $8,000 from Benderson and some of its affiliates. Pilon had received a total of $9,055 before he called an end to his campaign.
In his initial campaign finance filing for his re-election bid, Cutsinger reported $5,000 from Benderson and affiliates.
Commissioner Michael Moran, who will have to step down from the board in November 2024 because of term limits, and Commissioner Joe Neunder, who won the District 4 seat in 2022, both have been complimentary of Benderson during public hearings. For example, before the board members voted 4-1 on Sept. 27 to approve the redesign of the Siesta Promenade mixed-use development on Stickney Point Road, Moran said, “Anybody that has seen a Benderson Development project in this community — I think they are disingenuous if they are suggesting it is not a benefit to this community.” That day, Neunder also praised the company for its reputation.
Commissioner Mark Smith, who served for decades as a leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, asked his board colleagues a few weeks ago to support the Chamber’s Comprehensive Plan proposal for hotel construction on the Key.
The News Leader sent all of the commissioners except Smith an email on Nov. 17, asking the following questions:
- Since scientific research — and reports from the National Hurricane Center and NOAA — have shown clearly and unequivocally the increase in the number of hurricanes striking the Gulf Coast of Florida — and, especially, the propensity for those hurricanes to rapidly intensify before hitting the coast — do you believe that the county safely can allow intensive new hotel construction on Siesta Key?
- Even though [our reporter knows] you initially agreed to fight the DOAH decision in Lourdes’ Ramirez’s case, Administrative Law Judge Van Wyk did underscore multiple concerns in the Comprehensive Plan about hurricane evacuations from Siesta. With more people on the island, do you agree that it seems only logical that the evacuations would take longer and, therefore, could lead to the endangering of far more lives?”
- Even though [our reporter recalls] that at least one hotel project team member in 2021 talked of how his clients would ensure that guests left in a timely fashion in the face of storm advisories, [our reporter has] read accounts from the Tampa Bay region when such agreements were not honored. One of those situations occurred as Idalia was making her way through the Gulf. How would you ensure that hotels on Siesta Key complied with evacuation orders, and would you support special penalties for their failure to do so?
None of them responded.
The News Leader also contacted former Sheriff Knight this week to ask whether he would offer an opinion about the proposed hotel Comprehensive Plan amendments. Knight stressed, “Comp Plans should be defined by the community.” They are driven by a community’s values, he pointed out, making it vital for county commissioners to listen to citizens before taking any action.
“Nothing’s cookie cutter,” Knight added, noting that when he served as sheriff, he adopted policing strategies based on factors relevant to the specific areas of the county.
The attorney representing the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized in 2021 to oppose the plans for high-rise hotels on the Key, sent a letter to the commissioners, dated Nov. 17, urging them not to allow any of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments to be processed at this time.
Patricia A. Petruff of the Bradenton firm Dye Harrison, wrote, “Even if you believe that the Comprehensive Plan language which currently provides more protection to Siesta Key than other areas in the County needs to be changed, it is my opinion that the [commission] should not allow proponents of growth to direct and control the narrative of that process. Rather,” she continued, “the Board should, if it wants to make a change, direct staff to do its own study of what revisions might be reasonable both in the unincorporated area at large and on Siesta Key.”
Dave Balot, who plans the hotel on the former Wells Fargo Bank site on Siesta Key, has emphasized to the News Leader that he opposes what he considers to be high-density hotels. “I especially do not believe in no cap/unlimited density, which is what the Benderson [amendment] is asking for,” he wrote in a Nov. 12 email. “To put it as simply as I can, (and I apologize for this in advance),” he continued, “Siesta Key needs to let everyone know, ‘Don’t Bend Over for Benderson!’ ”
Balot also pointed to the facet of the Benderson proposal that would limit the number of new hotel and motel rooms to no more than 15% of the total, combined acreage of the Commercial General and Commercial Intensive parcels on Siesta, characterizing that step as “shutting the door behind just a few developers.”
For example, he said, he is a co-owner, with Michael Holderness, of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in Siesta Village. During the same period that the Calle Miramar hotel and a hotel planned on south Siesta by businessman Dr. Gary Kompothecras were under review by the county Planning staff, Holderness and Balot submitted a proposal for redeveloping that hotel. They ended up putting that on hold as the hotel litigation was underway.
Balot added in his Nov. 12 email to the News Leader, “I have the largest undeveloped [Commercial General] property on Siesta Key at just under 2.15 acres. As you can see, no cap/unlimited density would benefit me the most, but unlike (2) of the other developers proposing new hotels, I live on Siesta Key and am not willing to put money over what is, again in my opinion, best for Siesta Key. … However,” he continued, “[A]fter 50 years, it’s time for Siesta Key to have a new hotel or two …”
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