Judge denies intervenors’ request to move up trial date in Ramirez’s lawsuit over Calle Miramar hotel on Siesta

Judge notes possibility that later motions could result in earlier court date

Circuit Judge Stephen Walker is presiding over two lawsuits filed to prevent the construction of two high-rise hotels on Siesta Key. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit Court website

On April 25, a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge denied the request to move up the trial date for a Siesta Key resident’s complaint over the Sarasota County Commission’s approval of plans for a hotel on Calle Miramar.

The attorneys for the developer and the owners of the property slated as the site of that hotel sought a trial before this year ends. The trial has been scheduled for the court term that will begin on March 27, 2023.

However, Judge Stephen Walker did leave open the potential that the trial date could be moved up, depending on rulings on expected motions regarding facets of the lawsuit that Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez filed in late November 2021.

Further, Walker agreed that a jury trial will not be planned, as none of the parties was seeking that type of proceeding, even though the document setting the trial period indicated a jury would hear the case.

In her complaint, Ramirez contends that the County Commission’s 3-2 vote in October 2021 to approve the eight-story, 170-room hotel on the outskirts of Siesta Village is inconsistent with multiple sections of the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan. That document guides growth in the county.

The developer and the property owners had been allowed to intervene in the case.

Arguing for them this week, Shane T. Costello, a partner with the Tampa law firm of Hill Ward Henderson, stressed that the trial has been scheduled more than 16 months after Ramirez filed her suit. His clients, he pointed out, “have a lot at stake in this action. Their ability to develop this hotel stands or falls on the outcome.”

Costello is one of three attorneys representing Calle Miramar LLC, the owners of the four parcels where the hotel would stand, between Calle Miramar and Beach Road; and SKH 1 LLC, whose principal is RE/MAX Realtor Robert T. Anderson Jr. The principal owner is a New York City resident, Louise Khaghan.

“In real estate terms,” Costello continued during the April 25 hearing, “time is very meaningful. There’s substantial risk for my clients.”

He added, “It works to the benefit of the plaintiff to keep this tied up in litigation …”

In the March 22 motion that Costello filed on behalf of his clients, he wrote that they “have a significant interest in bringing this case to resolution expeditiously so that they may complete their hotel development.”

During the hearing, Costello told the judge, “For planning purposes, this is not a discovery-intense case with a lot of documents and depositions.” He said he believed the parties could be ready for the case “before the end of the year.”

Assistant County Attorney David Pearce, who is representing the county, did not participate in the hearing. Instead, Deputy County Attorney Bora S. Kayan handled that responsibility.

Walker pointed out that Kayan had explained to him, during a separate, recent proceeding, that Pearce would be unavailable on April 25.

“We don’t object to the intervenors’ motion,” Kayan told the judge. Nonetheless, Kayan continued, based on what he had been told by other members of the Office of the County Attorney, “We have so many trials set with the court, it would be hard to try to fit [Ramirez’s case] in [before the original trial date].”

The judge’s reasoning in ruling for Ramirez

Following about 20 minutes of arguments on April 25, Walker told the parties that he found a case that Ramirez’s attorneys had cited to be “strongly persuasive for today’s proceeding.”

Pamela Jo Hatley. Image from her LinkedIn account

As Pamela Jo Hatley of the Collins Law Firm in Tampa noted during the hearing, the 2016 Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal opinion in State Trust Realty, LLC v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co. pointed out that “[a]n intervenor is bound by the record made at the time it intervenes and must take the suit as the intervenor finds it.”

The appeals court ruling cited a 1938 Florida Supreme Court decision, she added.

That Fourth District Court opinion also said, “An intervenor cannot challenge the sufficiency of the pleadings or the propriety of the procedure, and cannot move to dismiss, delay, or advance the cause,” as Ramirez’s other attorney, Martha Collins, wrote in her April 19 response to the intervenors’ motion to move up the trial date.

Further, Hatley emphasized on April 25, she, Collins, and Assistant County Attorney Pearce had agreed to a case management order that set out dates for Ramirez’s complaint to proceed through the court system. That action occurred before March 7, she added, when the intervenors were granted the right to enter the case.

On March 22, Hatley continued, the intervenors filed their motion to accelerate the trial date.

Additionally, Hatley pointed out that Section 51.011 of the Florida Statutes “provides a very specific procedure. It limits the pleadings” in the type of complaint that she and Collins filed for Ramirez.

This is part of Section 51.011 of the Florida Statutes. Image courtesy State of Florida

That portion of state law lays out the timeline for the filing of the defendant’s answer to a complaint and the plaintiff’s reply to any counterclaim. “No other pleadings are permitted,” the statute adds. “All defensive motions, including motions to quash, shall be heard by the court prior to trial,” it also says.

Discovery is limited to just depositions and oral examination, Hatley told Judge Walker. (“Discovery” is the process through which the parties seek documents from each other that they believe are relevant to their case. A deposition is a legal proceeding in which an individual is asked questions about the issues raised in a lawsuit; the answers are recorded for potential use in a trial.)

In this case, Hatley noted, Ramirez, the county and the intervenors already have been filing requests for production of documents and setting dates for depositions. “This is five months into this case,” she stressed.

Summary judgment motions planned

When Walker asked whether Costello anticipated filing a motion for summary judgment, the attorney replied, “Very likely.”

Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains, “Summary judgment is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party without a full trial.”

FindLaw adds, “When one party believes that there are no important facts in dispute, he will file a motion for summary judgment. … After all the papers and supporting evidence has been submitted, the judge will review all the paperwork and make a decision.” The judge will grant the motion, or agree with one party if that party’s arguments about the law were correct, and “even assuming [the other party’s] version of the facts were true, [one party] is still entitled to win. The judge will deny the motion if there is evidence that presents any questions of fact that should be put to the test of a trial.”

Shane T. Costello. Photo from the Hill Ward Henderson website

“Are you able to give me some type of rough estimate as to when you will file for summary judgment?” Walker asked Costello on April 25.

The intervenors have a deposition of Ramirez scheduled for June 14, Costello responded. Therefore, Costello continued, he felt it likely that the motion for summary judgment on the standing issue would be filed by late June or early July.

“Standing” is a legal term regarding whether an individual has been more adversely affected — or will be more adversely affected — by an action than other persons in general.

In her complaint, Ramirez pointed to the fact that she lives only about 0.65 miles from the hotel site and that she “will experience adverse impacts from the intensity, density, and use of the Subject Property,” including “additional risk to her health and safety as a pedestrian and vehicle driver due to increased traffic and congestion on local roadways; delays due to increased traffic congestion on local roads; emergency evacuation route delays due to increased traffic congestion; delays of emergency responders due to increased traffic congestion; congestion and overcrowding of beaches, beach parking, and public beach access points; congestion and overcrowding of public restroom facilities serving local beaches.”

The Office of the County Attorney did not file a motion to dismiss Ramirez’s lawsuit, though it did so in a second, related complaint, which seeks to overturn the County Commission’s approval of a second hotel on Siesta Key, at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road, plus the Calle Miramar hotel vote. The south Siesta project, planned by Siesta businessman and chiropractor Dr. Gary Kompothecras, would be seven stories tall and encompass about 120 rooms.

In his motion in the Kompothecras case, Assistant County Attorney Pearce pointed out that the “seminal case of Renard v. Dade Cty,” which produced a 1972 Florida Supreme Court decision, lays out the criteria for standing: A “plaintiff must allege and prove a ‘special injury’ different in kind from that suffered by other residents in the community.”

In regard to a summary judgment motion on Ramirez’s allegation that the County Commission’s approval of the hotel violated policies in the Comprehensive Plan, Costello told Walker on April 25 that he expected to be ready to file that “in late July or in August.”

No hearing held on intervenors joining Ramirez’ case

This is a graphic showing the site of the proposed hotel on Calle Miramar, with other uses identified in the general vicinity. Image courtesy Sarasota County

One other point that arose during the hearing this week was the fact that Judge Walker did not conduct a hearing on whether to allow the intervenors to enter Ramirez’s case. Costello pointed out that a hearing was conducted on a motion filed by the developers and property owners of the Kompothecras hotel, plus Calle Miramar LLC and SKH 1 LLC.

Following that hearing, Walker ruled that those parties could join that second hotel lawsuit as intervenors.

The plaintiffs are two south Siesta residents, James P. Wallace III and Robert Sax, plus homeowner associations representing the Marina Del Sol condominium complex on Old Stickney Point Road and the 222 Beach Road complex, which stands near Beach Access 5, at the southern end of Siesta Village.

As a result of that decision, Costello noted on April 25, Ramirez’s attorneys agreed that the owners and developer of the Calle Miramar hotel project could enter Ramirez’s case.