Hearing on administrative law challenge to County Commission approval of Lakewood Ranch Southeast plans delayed from March to July

Judge grants petitions for Miakka Community Club, county resident Becky Ayech and developer of Lakewood Ranch to intervene in case

A Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding involving a challenge of the County Commission’s approval of plans allowing the expansion of Lakewood Ranch into Sarasota County has been delayed from mid-March until July, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Additionally, the administrative law judge presiding over the litigation has granted motions of both the Miakka Community Club and LWR Communities LLC — the developer of Lakewood Ranch — to intervene in the case.

On Dec. 8, 2022, Administrative Law Judge Hetal Desai issued an order setting the case for hearing from March 13 through March 17 in the Third Floor Think Tank of the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

However, in her Jan. 9 order, in response to a LWR Communities motion, Desai noted that the company had reported that “[m]any of the witnesses are unavailable for the current hearing date due to the public school spring holiday.” The judge explained, “This unavailability constitutes good cause for a continuance,” adding that it was the first request for a continuance that she had received in the case.

Therefore, Desai wrote, the hearing would be rescheduled for July 17-20 in the Think Tank.

As the News Leader has reported, late last year, two long-time residents of the eastern part of Sarasota County began the formal state process to challenge the Sarasota County Commission’s Oct. 25 approval of a Comprehensive Plan amendment to facilitate the construction of up to 5,000 homes in an expansion of Lakewood Ranch into the county.

Michael Hutchinson and Eileen Fitzgerald, who live on Bern Creek Loop, near the property where the development is planned, filed their petition on Nov. 28 with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH).

They contend that the commissioners’ adoption of an ordinance creating a Village Transition Zone within the county’s 2050 Plan for development east of Interstate 75 is inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the county.

Among their arguments, they say that the amendment “is not based upon the relevant and appropriate data and analysis.”

They point out that they “provided oral and written comments, recommendations, and objections to the County” in regard to the amendment during all stages of the adoption process. In those materials, they add, they cited “violations of existing Comprehensive Plan policy objectives and goals, including but not limited to the adverse impacts the Amendment has on the neighboring low-density single-family community and other low-density single family development in the area. [They] rely upon the protections provided by the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan and Florida Statutes against concomitant impacts of increased densities and intensities in the community including but not limited to incompatible uses, loss of environmental lands, significant reduction of and degradation of open space and greenbelt buffers, loss of agricultural lands and uses, as well as other intrusions that will detract from the long-term desirability and livability of their rural community.”

After the County Commission gave its initial approval to the proposal for the new Village Transition Zone, and the document was transmitted to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) for review, as required by state law, DEO staff expressed some concerns about facets of the 2050 Plan amendment.

Caleb Grimes of the Grimes Galvano law firm in Bradenton — who was part of the Lakewood Ranch developer’s project team — called the DEO comments mischaracterizations.

Nonetheless, during an Oct. 26 telephone interview with the News Leader, Sarasota attorney Susan Schoettle, who worked for a number of years in the Office of the County Attorney, noted the rarity of those DEO remarks. For the most part, she said, the department’s staff has provided responses on Comprehensive Plan amendments that have seemed “to be very pro forma.”

Schoettle was one of the founders, in June, of Keep the Country Inc. Hutchinson of Bern Creek Loop is the secretary and treasurer of that organization, Florida Division of Corporations records show.

The Intervenors

In regard to the motions to intervene in the case, the Miakka Community Club and its president, Becky Ayech, as an individual, were the first to seek the administrative law judge’s approval to engage in the DOAH litigation.

Their motion explained that Ayech, who has been a county resident for 42 years, lives on a “5-acre homestead located in the historic rural community” known as Miakka and Old Miakka.

The club, the motion continued, was founded in 1948 “to protect and preserve” the one-room schoolhouse that the club owns, which was built in 1914.

Ayech lives in close proximity to the area of the county that would be affected by the construction of Lakewood Ranch Southeast, the motion pointed out, and the Miakka Community Club operates within the same area.

Both the club and Ayech “will be adversely affected by this urban intrusion into a historic, rural community,” the motion contended. The Old Miakka Neighborhood Plan produced more than a decade ago by Sarasota County staff explains that the community contains 10 historic structures. “There is a strong sense of place here, a rural identity linking humans and land,” the plan points out. The motion to intervene includes most of the next sentence in that paragraph: “The density of land use in the area must be meticulously mindful of such characteristics and avoid being at odds to the rural context of the community …”

Although the News Leader can find no date on the Old Miakka Neighborhood Plan, it was produced when Paul Mercier, Shannon Staub and the late David Mills were members of the County Commission. Mills left the board in late 2006.

In its introduction, the plan added, “Old Miakka is not only an area of rich history but one of rural character and integrity. Of all things material, great and small, the residents’ love of the land and pastoral admiration is what they hold closest to their hearts. As development continues to grow east of Sarasota County’s Urban Service Boundary, the neighborhood has begun to feel growing pains, generating significant concern about the community’s future.”

Ayech and the club participated in the entire process that led to the County Commission’s approval of the Comprehensive Plan amendment that allows Lakewood Ranch Southeast to be constructed at a higher density than the county’s Future Land Use Map indicated for the site, the motion explained. “The County has failed to adhere to its own policies against incompatible development and urban sprawl, provision of open space, greenways and other buffer areas, established rural neighborhood and roadway viewshed character protections, and policies requiring the County to protect wetland areas and establish connected wildlife corridors,” the motion contended.

Sarasota attorney Scott Proffitt is representing Ayech and the Miakka Community Club.

On Dec. 20. 2022, Administrative Law Judge Desai granted that motion to intervene, the DOAH case records note.

As for LWR Communities: On Dec. 8, 2022, attorneys George N. Meros Jr. and Tara R. Price of the Shutts & Bowen firm in Tallahassee — plus Bradenton attorney Grimes of the Grimes Galvano firm — pointed out in that company’s motion to intervene that LWR Communities “is the master developer of the flourishing and highly sought-after Lakewood Ranch community, a large award-winning mixed-use multi-generational community of more than 31,000 acres located in southeastern Manatee and northeastern Sarasota Counties. In response to the significant growth in the area’s population and demand for more housing,” the attorneys continued, “LWR Communities seeks to build upon the success of the existing Lakewood Ranch community” with the expansion into Sarasota County.

“LWR Communities seeks to intervene in the [Hutchinson-Fitzgerald DOAH case] to protect its interests,” the motion added.

The Comprehensive Plan amendment that the County Commission approved in late October 2022 allows the company “to begin the process of developing its remaining lands, together with additional joint venture lands, consistent with market-driven land uses, densities, and housing types that have been developed throughout Lakewood Ranch over the past 25+ years,” the motion pointed out.

If Administrative Law Judge Desai determines that the amendment is not in compliance with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the motion added, “LWR Communities will be unable to develop Lakewood Ranch Southeast and to help meet the housing and other land use needs of Sarasota County’s fast-growing population.”

Desai granted that motion to intervene on Dec. 9, 2022, the day after it was filed, the DOAH case records show.