Judge agrees to delay in county response to second lawsuit filed over approved hotels
In its response to a lawsuit that Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez filed over the Sarasota County Commission’s approval of an eight-story, 170-room hotel on Calle Miramar, the Office of the County Attorney contends that Ramirez lacks standing to pursue the case.
Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains that the issue of standing typically focuses on whether a plaintiff in a lawsuit has sustained or will sustain direct injury or harm “and that this harm is redressable.”
In his Dec. 21, 2021 filing, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce referenced Subsection 163.3215(2) of the Florida Statutes. That section defines an “aggrieved or adversely affected party” in part as “‘[A]ny person … that will suffer an adverse effect to an interest protected or furthered by the local government comprehensive plan. … The alleged adverse interest may be shared in common with other members of the community at large but must exceed in degree the general interest in community good shared by all persons.’”
The emphasis is Pearce’s.
“Ramirez alleges the proximity of her residence to [the site planned for the hotel, between Calle Miramar and Beach Road on Siesta Key] and her daily life routine expose her to adverse effects,” Pearce continued. Yet, he added, Ramirez’s complaint does not provide details about how any of her interests would be protected or furthered by the numerous county Comprehensive Plan objectives or policies she cited in her court filing. “Therefore,” he asserted, “Ramirez lacks standing to pursue her claim.”
In her complaint against the county, Ramirez argued that the County Commission’s 3-2 vote to approve the hotel plans was, for one example, inconsistent with a Comprehensive Plan policy written to protect the public safety of Siesta residents during emergency evacuations. That Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 limits density and intensification of land uses on the barrier island to those in existence as of March 13, 1989.
The agents representing the owners of the property slated for the hotel told the County Commission that, in accord with national standards, the county policy regarding residential development on the barrier islands should not be applied to hotels. Previously, under the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations, parcels zoned Commercial General (CG) could have up to 26 hotel rooms per acre as long as the rooms did not have kitchens.
The hotel parcels altogether comprise 0.96 acres.
County Planning Division staff agreed with the agents’ assertions. Ultimately, three of the five commissioners then agreed with county staff on that point.
Ramirez cited a number of other Comprehensive Plan policies in arguing that the hotel project should not have been approved. She contends that it would be inconsistent with the existing neighborhood on Calle Miramar; that it would violate measures to protect the coastal environment; and that it would contravene a county policy calling for the encouragement of “low-density land uses in the Coastal High-Hazard Area … in order to direct population concentrations from this area.”
The four parcels on which the hotel would stand are in the county’s primary evacuation zone, Ramirez’s complaint points out.
Not only has the hotel been designed with 170 rooms, the complaint says, but it also will have a garage with 223 parking spaces for hotel guests and the public, plus a restaurant and retail shops.
Prior to the county Planning Commission’s Aug. 19, 2021 public hearing on the Calle Miramar hotel application, Ramirez provided county staff and the commissioners with a “white paper” that she had written. It is a detailed, 12-page analysis of the proposal in context with policies in the Comprehensive Plan.
In a news release she issued in conjunction with her filing of her suit, Ramirez explained that the Comprehensive Plan is the county’s “long-term growth plan.” Its policies, the release added, “include protections of the barrier islands,” such as “maintaining orderly and balanced growth.”
The press release formally was issued by Siesta Key Community, which Ramirez serves as president. She has noted that she created Siesta Key Community in 2010 “as a resource for Siesta Key residents and visitors.”
During her years of service as president of the nonprofit Siesta Key Association (SKA), Ramirez talked of her efforts to become well versed with the county’s Comprehensive Plan and county zoning regulations.
Extension sought for answer in second hotel complaint
While Assistant County Attorney Pearce did provide answers to Ramirez’s complaint, The Sarasota News Leader learned on Jan. 3 that he had filed for an extension of time to respond to a second complaint filed by Siesta residents in an effort to stop both the Calle Miramar hotel and a seven-story, 120-room hotel the county commissioners have approved for construction on Old Stickney Point Road.
In his Dec. 30, 2021 filing, Pearce pointed out that the plaintiffs filed that second complaint on Nov. 29, 2021. “Due to current case load, as well as the holidays,” he continued, “counsel for the County needs additional time to prepare the answer.” He asked 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Stephen Walker, who is handling both that second case and Ramirez’s complaint, to give him until Jan. 10 to respond. The plaintiffs in the second case have no objection to that delay, Pearce added.
On Jan. 3, Walker granted Pearce’s request.
The plaintiffs in that second case are James P. Wallace III and Robert I Sax, both residents of south Siesta Key; the homeowners association for the condominium complex at 222 Beach Road; and the Marina Del Sol Condominium Association.
The 222 Beach Road structure is located across Beach Road from two of the Calle Miramar hotel parcels, while Marina Del Sol would stand just east of the hotel on Old Stickney Point Road. Siesta chiropractor and businessman Dr. Gary Kompothecras is the developer of the latter project.
Other county answers in the Ramirez litigation
Along with his argument in regard to Ramirez’s standing in her complaint, Assistant County Attorney Pearce provided answers to the 67 points Ramirez’s made in the suit.
For example, Pearce did admit that Ramirez’s home “is located approximately 0.65 miles” from the site slated for the Calle Miramar hotel.
However, he wrote “Denied” to Ramirez’s statement that, because her residence is located on a barrier island “within near proximity” to the hotel parcels, “she will experience adverse impacts from the intensity, density and use of the Subject Property allowed by the Development Order.” The latter phrase refers to the County Commission’s majority vote of approval to allow the construction to proceed.
The state’s Community Planning Act defines “development order” as “any order granting, denying, or granting with conditions an application for a development permit.” It adds, “‘Development permit’ includes any building permit, zoning permit, subdivision approval, rezoning, certification, special exception, variance, or any other official action of local government having the effect of permitting the development of land.”
To be able to construct the Calle Miramar hotel, the developers needed the County Commission to approve Special Exceptions allowing the building to exceed the 35-foot height restriction on parcels zoned Commercial General; and to allow “transient accommodations” — meaning hotel or motel rooms — on Commercial General property.
Further, Pearce wrote, “Denied” to Ramirez’s assertion that she will face “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.”
Pearce did write “Admitted” to her statement that the roadways on the barrier island “are already operating at constrained levels of service.” The latter phrase refers to how drivers perceive traffic to flow.
Ramirez also had pointed out that “no potential improvements [have been planned] to provide better operating conditions.”
Even county Public Works Director Spencer Anderson has acknowledged in open meetings with the county commissioners that staff is constrained in taking any measures to ease traffic congestion because of private property rights. At no time, to the News Leader’s knowledge, has any commissioner indicated any desire to use eminent domain to acquire private property to enable staff to widen any of the heavily traveled roads on the Key, for example.
Further, Pearce denied Ramirez’s statement that the 125,000 square feet of the hotel project “constitutes an intense land use with a floor-area-ratio equivalent to approximately three feet of floor area to each one foot of land area.”
Pearce also denied Ramirez’s assertions that the hotel will represent “a significant intensification of land use … within Hurricane Evacuation Zone A” and that Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the Comprehensive Plan “clearly and explicitly adopts the zoning ordinances and regulations existing as of March 13, 1989 as the limit of density and intensity of development on lands designated as Barrier Islands.”