Intervenors seeking to accelerate 2023 trial date
Three months after oral arguments in the case, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in late November 2021, with the goal of halting plans for both hotels that the Sarasota County Commission has approved for Siesta Key, still are awaiting a decision from the presiding judge on the county’s motion asking the judge to rule in its favor.
In the meantime, the parties have been trading requests for materials and scheduling depositions.
Additionally, the attorneys representing the developers and owners of the property where the two hotels would stand — called “intervenors” — have pushed to accelerate the timeline for the trial. In late January, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Stephen Walker set that for a two-week court period beginning June 2023. He had ruled in late February that the developers and property owners could join the case. However, in his order, Walker wrote that the intervention “is preliminarily limited in scope to the extent necessary to protect the intervenors’ interests. The Court reserves the ability to modify this limitation on the rights to intervene … as this action progresses.”
As they did in the first hotel lawsuit, filed also in November 2021, the attorneys for these intervenors have contended that their clients have too much at stake in terms of their financial investment to wait a year for case to be heard.
The motion filed on April 22 argues, “The Florida Legislature contemplated the need for expeditious resolution of these land development cases,” saying in Section 163.3215(8)(a) of the Florida Statutes that “ ‘[T]he court shall advance the cause on the calendar’ [emphasis in the motion].”
However, in the first hotel complaint — filed by Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez in regard just to the plans for a project on Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village — Walker ruled in favor of Ramirez. He agreed with her attorneys’ citation of a judicial precedent in ordering that the trial would remain on schedule for May 2023.
The court docket for the second complaint — filed on behalf of south Siesta Key residents James P. Wallace III and Robert Sax, plus the homeowners associations 222 Beach Road Owners Association and the Marina Del Sol Condominium Association — shows no indication of Walker’s having set a date to consider the intervenors’ request.
The hearing on the county’s motion to dismiss their complaint was conducted on March 18. During that event, the primary attorney for the four plaintiffs maintained that the County Commission should have amended the county’s Comprehensive Plan to remove the counting of hotel rooms as dwelling units. Instead, the County Commission on Oct. 27, 2021 voted 3-2 to approve an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations. That change eliminated any consideration of rooms in hotels or motels countywide as residential dwelling units.
Previously, any property designated Commercial General — which is the zoning of the two hotel sites — could have no more than 26 guest rooms per acre.
A 170-room, eight-story hotel is planned on 0.96 acres on four parcels between Calle Miramar and Beach Road on Siesta Key. The second project would encompass about 120 rooms and seven stories on approximately 1.17 acres at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road.
The primary attorney for the plaintiffs in this second complaint is David Smolker of the Tampa firm Smolker Mathews. On April 26, a second attorney with the firm, Gunnar Westergom, filed a form with the court, noting that he also would serve as counsel for the plaintiffs.
More details of the March 18 hearing and subsequent actions
During the March 18 hearing before Judge Walker, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce emphasized the county’s position that the Wallace/Sax complaint, as crafted, does not pursue the appropriate legal means for redress.
Pearce pointed out — as he had in the county’s response to the complaint — that the plaintiffs were relying on Florida Statute 163.3184, which involves the process for adoption of comprehensive plans or amendments to those plans.
In his motion seeking dismissal of the case, Pearce wrote, “[T]hat statute does not offer a cause of action for statutory relief based on a failure to adopt or amend a comprehensive plan …”
A comprehensive plan is a local government’s guide for growth.
Attorney Scott McLaren of the Hill Ward Henderson firm in Tampa, who is part of the team representing the property owners and developers, concurred with Pearce during the March 18 hearing: “There was no Comprehensive Plan amendment in this case.”
Wallace has contended at Siesta Key Association (SKA) meetings that the project teams for the two hotels wanted to avoid the prospect that they would be unable to secure the necessary supermajority vote — four yeses — if they continued to seek a Comprehensive Plan amendment, as each of them did in the early stages of their planning.
During the county Planning Commission’s August 2021 hearing on the Calle Miramar hotel proposal, Todd Dary, manager of the county’s Planning Services Division, said that county staff had been considering the need to eliminate the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential purposes.
The Wallace/Sax case and Ramirez’s complaint both pointed to Future Land Use policy 2.9.1 in the county Comprehensive Plan in contending that the County Commission was wrong to approve the hotels. That policy calls for maintaining residential density on the barrier islands at the same level in place as of March 13, 1989.
Following the March 18 hearing, Judge Walker told the parties that he would issue a ruling at a later date. He offered no indication of how long that would take.
The most recent document to appear in the case docket prior to publication of this issue of The Sarasota News Leader was filed on June 13. It is the county’s response to the plaintiffs’ first request for “admissions.”
For example, the county admitted that a Future Land Use Map in the Comprehensive Plan, provided by the plaintiffs in their filings, “is a true and correct copy” of the county map and that it was “applicable to Siesta Key [and] in effect on both October 27, 2021 and November 2, 2021, and currently remains in effect.”
The County Commission conducted the public hearing on the second hotel project, planned for Old Stickney Point Road, on Nov. 2, 2021. The developer and principal owner of the site is Siesta businessman and chiropractor Dr. Gary Kompothecras.
A second admission in that June 13 court document acknowledges that Siesta Key is designated as a barrier island in the Future Land Use section of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
Another recent document filed in the case shows that plaintiff Wallace is scheduled to be deposed at 10 a.m. Central Time on July 19 at a resort and conference center in Sheboygan, Wis. Depositions are used as a means of acquiring more information about a legal case, which can prove of aid to attorneys in their arguments on behalf of their clients.