County Commission agrees to pay Ramirez $170,000 and second set of litigants $101,278.20 to wrap up hotel lawsuits filed in 2021

Office of County Attorney recommended amounts

In 2023, Circuit Judge Hunter Carroll ending up presiding over both Siesta Key high-rise hotel lawsuits. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website

With no comments, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously on March 19 to approve proposed settlements with the plaintiffs in two complaints filed in 2021 over the board’s approval of two high-rise hotels planned on Siesta Key.

County Attorney Joshua Moye had provided the commissioners a detailed memo, explaining how the Office of the County Attorney arrived at the figures it recommended.

Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez, who filed the first complaint in November 2021 with the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, will receive $170,000. The plaintiffs in the second case originally were south Siesta residents James P. Wallace III and Robert Sax, along with two condominium associations — 222 Beach Road Owners Association and the Marina Del Sol Condominium Association. Wallace later withdrew from that litigation. They will receive $101,278.20.

Sax lives in Marina Del Sol, which is directly east of the site where Siesta businessman Gary Kompothecras proposes to construct a seven-story, 120-room hotel, which is the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road.

Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta Key resident who represents the northern part of the island as part of his District 2 territory, made the March 19 motion to approve the settlements, and Commissioner Joe Neunder of Venice, who represents the southern portion of the Key, in District 4, seconded the motion.

A March 14 newsletter distributed jointly by two organizations with which Ramirez is associated — Siesta Key Community and Protect Siesta Key — expressed Ramirez’s gratitude to the public “for all of their support,” adding that she is “glad that the lawsuit is finally over.”

Ramirez’s litigation focused on her assertion that the 2021 commission violated the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community, in voting 3-2 to approve a planned 170-room hotel on Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village.

Prior to that Oct. 27, 2091 decision, those board members also voted 3-2 to amend the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations, to eliminate the counting of hotel and motel rooms throughout most of the county for residential density purposes. Previously, the UDC had limited the number of such rooms to a maximum of 26 on parcels zoned Commercial General or Commercial Intensive, and only if most of the rooms had no kitchens.

Ramirez pointed to Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the Comprehensive Plan, which limits residential density and intensity on the barrier islands to that in place as of March 13, 1989.

In an August 2023 ruling, a Circuit Court judge agreed with Ramirez’s arguments, following his analysis of two older versions of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

These are details regarding the UDC amendment that the County Commission approved on Oct. 27, 2021, to enable construction of high-rise hotels on Siesta Key. Sarasota attorney William Merrill III showed this slide to the commissioners during his presentation about the Calle Miramar hotel plans. image courtesy Sarasota County

The second complaint involved both the Calle Miramar hotel and Kompothecras’ project.

The plaintiffs in the second lawsuit contended, too, that the commission action in 2021 violated Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1. Moreover, their complaint argued that the board members chose to amend just the UDC, in regard to “transient accommodations” — county staff’s term for hotel and motel rooms — because a board majority could accomplish that action. To enact a Comprehensive Plan amendment, a supermajority — four of five commissioners voting “Yes” — is necessary.

The memo produced by the Office of the County Attorney for the March 19 commission meeting explained that the office staff requested and received copies of the contracts between the plaintiffs in the cases and their attorneys. “Our office also asked for, and received, an accounting of the time spent by the opposing counsel to verify the proper amount of fees,” the memo noted.

Staff of the Office of the County Attorney then “conducted an extensive review of the timesheets provided by plaintiffs’ attorneys,” the memo continued. Additionally, the memo noted, the staff hired an expert witness, attorney Mark Barnebey, of the Blalock Walters firm, to review the timesheets that the attorneys had provided to the Office of the County Attorney.

Originally, the memo pointed out, Ramirez sought payment of $190,118 in attorneys’ fees and $10,471.35 in costs, for a total of $200,589.35. The contract between Ramirez and her attorneys called for her to pay two of them — Martha Collins of Tampa and Richard Grosso of Plantation — $300 per hour. She also agreed to pay attorney Pamela Jo Hatley, who worked with Collins, $250 per hour. Altogether, the memo said, Grosso billed 419.75 hours; Collins, 144.7 hours; and Hatley, 86.2 hours.

Attorney Martha Collins. Image from her Facebook page

In comparison, the memo continued, the Office of the County Attorney (OCA) logged 410.39 hours of time for David M. Pearce, now a deputy county attorney, plus 182.98 hours of paralegal time for Rachel Carr, in defense of the county in the litigation.

Ultimately, the memo said, the OCA’s expert witness agreed that the amount Ramirez was willing to accept — $170,000 — was reasonable.

The memo then explained that in the second case, the plaintiffs had a contract with their attorneys that capped their fees at $75,000, with a $15,000 bonus offered if they prevailed in the litigation. Those plaintiffs did receive $6,200 in contributions to pursue the case, the memo noted.

Altogether, the memo added, their expenses in attorneys’ fees and costs was $103,546.20. If not for the cap, the memo pointed out, they would have owed their attorneys $201,950.62 for the 493.9 hours billed.

In comparison, the memo continued, the OCA logged 212.25 hours of Deputy County Attorney Pearce’s time and 134.10 hours of paralegal Carr’s time.

Finally, the memo said, the expert witness consulting with the OCA agreed that the $101,278.20 would be reasonable as a settlement in the second lawsuit.