Law professor who won landmark Comprehensive Plan lawsuit in Florida joins legal team of Siesta resident battling hotel planned on edge of Siesta Village

Richard Grosso’s efforts resulted in developer having to demolish $3.3-million luxury apartment complex

Richard Grosso. Image from the Nova Southeastern University website

Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez has added another attorney to her legal team as she challenges the Sarasota County Commission’s approval of plans for an 8-story, 170-room hotel on the edge of Siesta Village.

On May 31, Richard Grosso, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, filed a notice with the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to show that he was joining Tampa attorneys Martha Collins and Pamela Jo Hatley as co-counsel for Ramirez.

“He’s got a very impressive background,” Ramirez told The Sarasota News Leader during a June 6 telephone interview.

When Audubon Florida honored Grosso by presenting him its 2021 Everglades Champion Award, that nonprofit pointed to his “35 years of experience as a litigator, appellate lawyer, advocate, and counselor in the areas of federal and Florida environmental, land use, constitutional, property rights and related governmental and administrative law.”

Audubon Florida added, “Mr. Grosso has successfully litigated many significant and precedent setting cases in the areas of federal and state environmental permitting, land use planning and development, and property rights.”

During the telephone interview with the News Leader, Ramirez said that when she is asked about the chances that she will prevail in her complaint against Sarasota County over plans for the hotel on Calle Miramar, her response is to talk about a case called Pinecrest Lakes, Inc. v. Shidel, which is very similar to hers. Grosso represented the prevailing party in that litigation.

His willingness to join her legal team, she said, “shows that someone really believes that we have a strong case.”

Former Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Gary Farmer wrote the Villas at Pinecrest Lakes decision. Image courtesy Fourth District Court of Appeal

In September 2001, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the Martin County Commission violated that county’s Comprehensive Plan by allowing the construction of the Villas at Pinecrest Lakes. Even though neighbors of the project were engaged in litigation to try to halt the project, the developer had proceeded to build the $3.3-million luxury apartment complex. As a result of the court’s decision, a demolition crew began tearing down the structure, the Associated Press reported in September 2002.

The developer had purchased a 500-acre parcel in Martin County with plans to develop it in phases, the Fourth District Court of Appeal explained in its ruling. Phase One of the site was designated “Residential Estate,” the court continued, “meaning single-family homes on individual lots with a maximum density of 2 units per acre (UPA).”

The Martin County Comprehensive Plan provided that in situations where single-family dwelling units were the dominant type of structure within such a zoning district, construction on undeveloped abutting lands had to have structures compatible with those single-family homes.

A local government’s comprehensive plan guides growth in the community.

Phase Ten of the developer’s project, however, “was designated by the Comprehensive Plan as ‘Medium Density Residential’ with a maximum of [eight dwelling units per acre],” the court pointed out. Ultimately, the developer sought to build 136 units in two-story buildings, with a density of 6.5 units per acre, the court continued.

Although a number of people objected to the plans when the Martin County Commission conducted a public hearing on the project, the court added, the County Commission approved the construction of 19 two-story buildings.

Two individuals fought that decision, contending that the Martin County Commission had violated that county’s Comprehensive Plan. The trial court ultimately ruled in their favor, the Fourth District Court of Appeal noted, even though the developer contended that the County Commission had the right to interpret the Martin County Comprehensive Plan.

As the Court of Appeal explained, “Section 163.3194 [of the Florida Statutes] requires that all development conform to the approved Comprehensive Plan, and that development orders be consistent with that Plan. The statute is framed as a rule, a command to cities and counties that they must comply with their own Comprehensive Plans after they have been approved by the State. The statute does not say that local governments shall have some discretion as to whether a proposed development should be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. Consistency with a Comprehensive Plan is therefore not a discretionary matter. When the Legislature wants to give an agency discretion and then for the courts to defer to such discretion, it knows how to say that. Here it has not.

“We thus reject the developer’s contention that the trial court erred in failing to defer to the County’s interpretation of its own comprehensive plan,” the court’s opinion said.

The Calle Miramar hotel case

These are the existing conditions around the site where the Calle Miramar hotel is planned. This is a slide that the project team presented to the County Commission on Oct. 27, 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In her complaint against Sarasota County, which she filed in November 2021, Ramirez has argued that the County Commission’s approval of the Calle Miramar hotel violated policies in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Among them, she pointed to Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, which limited “the intensity and density of future development on the Barrier Islands of Sarasota” to that allowed by zoning ordinances and regulations existing as of March 13, 1989.

The Siesta Key Overlay District, which encompasses all of the land-use regulations for the island, restricted the number of hotel rooms to a maximum of 26 per acre on property zoned Commercial General (CG), if most of the rooms had no kitchens.

The four parcels that comprise the site planned for the Calle Miramar hotel encompass slightly less than 1 acre.

A former county planner who is a Sarasota attorney — Robert Lincoln — told the County Commission during the Oct. 27, 2021 public hearing on the hotel application that the intent with the Comprehensive Plan policies was not to count “transient accommodations” — the county term for hotel and motel rooms — as residential dwelling units. Therefore, the hotel project team was justified in seeking an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) that called for the elimination of any residential dwelling unit consideration in the context of transient accommodations.

This graphic shows more details about the Calle Miramar hotel site and the surrounding properties. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In her complaint, Ramirez cited other Sarasota Comprehensive Plan policies, as well, in contending that the commissioners’ split vote in approving the application was wrong. Among them, she noted that Housing Policy 1.5.6 requires the county to “ensure that the character and design of infill development promotes, enhances, and increases the vitality of existing neighborhoods.” Yet, the hotel would “result in negative impacts to and reduced vitality of the existing neighborhood,” her lawsuit contends.

The hotel would be adjacent to a four-story condominium complex, and other residential structures of similar height are in the same area.

Ramirez told the News Leader that she “reached out to [Grosso] last year.” At the time, she continued, he had a full caseload. Nonetheless, Ramirez added, he was willing to serve as a consultant to her Tampa attorneys.

Since he has finished his work on a couple of cases, Ramirez said, he has the time to devote to her lawsuit.

Lourdes Ramirez. Contributed image

Ramirez noted that she also was heartened by Circuit Judge Stephen Walker’s ruling in March that the timeline for her case should not be accelerated, as attorneys for the owner of the property where the Calle Miramar hotel would stand and the developer — RE/MAX Realtor Robert T. Anderson Jr. — had sought.

The principal owner is a New York City resident.

Formally called “intervenors” in the case, the owners and Anderson contend that a May 2023 trial date is too late. As one of their attorneys, Shane Costello of the Hill Ward Henderson firm in Tampa, pointed out to Walker during the April 25 hearing, they “have a lot at stake in this action. Their ability to develop this hotel stands or falls on the outcome.”

Costello added, “In real estate terms, time is very meaningful. There’s substantial risk for my clients.”

In ruling for Ramirez and keeping the 2023 trial timeline, Walker referenced a judicial precedent that Ramirez’s attorneys had cited in arguing against accelerating the proceedings. That opinion, issued in 2016 by Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in State Trust Realty, LLC v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co., said 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, Ramirez’s attorney, Hatley, told Walker.

During the interview this week with the News Leader, Ramirez said that she had been impressed by Walker, noting that it is clear he is thorough in his reading of the briefs filed in the case.

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