Ramirez files suit on Nov. 24 in 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota
The day before Thanksgiving, Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez filed suit against Sarasota County over the county commissioners’ Oct. 27 approval of an eight-story, 170-room hotel that has been planned for four parcels between Beach Road and Calle Miramar.
The president of an organization called the Siesta Key Community, Ramirez also is a past president of the Siesta Key Association and the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA).
The complaint asks the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota to quash the County Commission action, which came on a 3-2 vote.
Commission Chair Alan Maio sided with Commissioners Michael Moran and Ron Cutsinger to allow the project to go forward. Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents the northern portion of the island in District 2, joined Commissioner Nancy Detert in the minority.
In the Nov. 24 complaint, Ramirez’s attorney, Martha Collins of the Collins Law Group in Tampa, cites numerous policies in the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan with which the hotel project is inconsistent. Collins also points to the expectation that the hotel would lead to exacerbation of the island’s traffic congestion and potentially result in harm to residents in the event of a hurricane’s approach to the Key.
In a statement emailed to The Sarasota News Leader on Nov. 29, Ramirez wrote, “I want to stress that this is not about whether or not we should have hotels on the Key but the fact that Sarasota County Commissioners ignored the laws of our Comprehensive Plan.”
A Siesta Key Community press release explains that the Comprehensive Plan is the county’s “long-term growth plan.” Its policies, the release adds, “include protections of the barrier islands,” such as “maintaining orderly and balanced growth.”
The suit notes that Ramirez’s residence is located approximately 0.65 miles from the hotel site, which is near the intersection of Calle Miramar and Ocean Boulevard. If the project goes forward, the complaint adds, Ramirez “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 complaint further points out, “Roadways on Siesta Key are already operating at constrained levels of service.” It cites a section of the county’s Comprehensive Plan — Table 10-4 on pages 414-417 in Volume 2. That shows “several roadways on Siesta Key are designated ‘constrained,’ meaning [they] are operating at a Level of Service ‘D’ or ‘F,’ and there are no potential improvements to provide better operating conditions.”
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) explains in its 2020 Level of Service Handbook that Quality of Service (QOS) “is a traveler-based perception of how well a transportation service or facility operates.” Level of Service (LOS) quantifies that into six letter grades, the handbook adds. LOS A is best and LOS F is worst … from a traveler experience and perspective. … Essentially, LOS F either means travel demand exceeds capacity and the roadway is operating in oversaturated conditions, or another undesirable condition exists.”
The complaint also references the county Comprehensive Plan in explaining that “Level of Service ‘D’ means ‘Speed and freedom to maneuver are severely restricted, and a poor level of comfort and convenience is experienced by the motorist. Small increases in traffic will generally cause operational problems at this level.”
The suit adds that the Comprehensive Plan describes Level of Service F thus:
“Operating conditions at this level are forced or have broken down. This condition exists wherever the amount of traffic approaching a point exceeds the amount that can traverse the point. Queues typically form at such locations. Operations are characterized by stop and go waves; vehicles may proceed at reasonable speeds for short distances, and then be required to stop in a cyclical fashion. Comfort and convenience are extremely poor, and frustration is high …”
Moreover, the complaint continues, the Comprehensive Plan says that Sarasota County’s “‘acceptance of constrained … roadways … presumes an additional responsibility on the part of the county in its review and approval of development orders: to base such decisions on maintaining the existing level of service of such roadways and to not allow the existing operating conditions to be degraded.’”
The County Commission’s 3-2 vote of approval of the Calle Miramar hotel plans is considered a development order under state law.
During the Oct. 27 public hearing on the proposal, project team members told the commissioners that they expect people most often would use a service such as Uber or Lyft to reach the hotel and that those who drove to the destination would leave their vehicles in the parking garage and, instead, walk or use services such as the Siesta Key Breeze trolley or other ride-share options to get around the island.
They also stressed that other uses of the property allowed by right because of its Commercial General zoning would generate far more traffic than the hotel.
Further, the complaint points out that the county Comprehensive Plan “identifies segments of the following roadways on Siesta Key among those designated as ‘constrained’ roadways: Higel Avenue; Siesta Drive; and Stickney Point Road.” Yet, it continues, Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road are the designated hurricane evacuation routes for island residents.
Extra protection for the barrier islands
The hotel site, the suit also notes, is designated “Barrier Island” on the applicable Future Land Use Map in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. A chapter in Volume 2 of that plan states that “Barrier Islands are recognized as a unique land use category,” the complaint points out and then quotes from the plan:
“Development on the Barrier Islands is of special concern due to problems associated with hurricane evacuation, potential for storm damage, and the sensitive nature of coastal habitats …”
Moreover, that chapter says, “The future distribution, extent and location of generalized land uses are not portrayed for the Barrier Islands, because it is the continued policy of Sarasota County that the intensity and density of future development not exceed that allowed by existing zoning.” The emphasis is in the complaint.
The suit also notes that all of Siesta Key is within Evacuation Level A, which means the island would be among the first county locations to be evacuated if a Category 1 hurricane were headed toward the county.
The Office of the County Attorney makes a practice of declining comment on litigation that is underway, county staff has told The Sarasota News Leader on multiple occasions. The county will have 30 days from the date of Ramirez’s filing to answer the complaint.
Other inconsistencies with Comprehensive Plan policies
Another section of the suit contends that all development orders much be consistent with policies in a local government’s Comprehensive Plan, as noted in Section 163.3161 of the Florida Statutes. (That part of state law is known as the Community Planning Act.)
Yet, the Calle Miramar hotel, comprising about 125,000 square feet on less than 1 acre “constitutes an intense land use with a floor-area-ratio equivalent to approximately 3 feet of floor area to 1 foot of land area,” the complaint says. Future Land Use Policy 1.2.6 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan requires the county to “‘discourage the intensification of land uses within Hurricane Evacuation Zones A and B,’” the suit points out.
Then the complaint notes Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, which says, “The intensity and density of future development on the Barrier Islands of Sarasota shall not exceed that allowed by zoning ordinances and regulations existing as of March 13, 1989.”
The suit argues that the approval of the hotel “will materially increase the density and intensity of the Subject Property over that allowed by the Sarasota County zoning ordinances and regulations existing as of March 13, 1989, because under those regulations the Subject Property could be developed as a hotel with a maximum of 25 transient residential units (26 units per acre x .96 acre size) and up to 25 parking spaces, whereas under the Development Order the Subject Property can be developed as an eight-story, 80-foot-high hotel with 170 rooms (transient residential units), a restaurant/bar, retail shops, and 223 public and private parking spaces.”
Moreover, the suit points out, “Comprehensive Plan Housing Policy 1.5.6 requires Sarasota County to ‘ensure that the character and design of infill development promotes, enhances, and increases the vitality of existing neighborhoods.’”
Yet, the complaint contends, the hotel project, as designed, “adjacent to existing residential developments … will result in negative impacts to and reduced vitality of the existing neighborhood.”
Further, the suit says, “Comprehensive Plan Coastal Objective 1.1 requires Sarasota County to ‘limit public expenditures in the designated Coastal High-Hazard Area … to necessary public services and not to subsidize new development in this area.’”
It adds that the plan’s “Coastal Objective 1.2 requires Sarasota County to ‘encourage low-density land uses in the Coastal High-Hazard Area … in order to direct population concentrations from this area,” while Coastal Policy 1.2.3 calls for the county to “‘encourage hotel/motel development” in storm evacuation zones C, D and E, instead of A and B.
The focus of Siesta Key Community
The lawsuit explains that Ramirez owns and operates Siesta Key Community, “a corporation she created in 2010 as a resource for Siesta Key residents and visitors.” The mission of the corporation, the document adds, is “‘to educate and to advocate for issues that impact the environment and the quality of life of residents and visitors of Siesta Key.’”
Among its goals, the complaint says, are the following:
- “Protection of Siesta Key’s natural environment.
- “Protect Siesta Key neighborhoods from over-development.
- “Protect current Siesta Key Zoning Code.
- “Support local businesses and accommodations.
- “Provide information on Siesta Key events and businesses through social media.”
“Both individually and through … Siesta Key Community,” the complaint continues, “Ramirez “has focused her time, work, energies, and financial resources to protect and preserve the quality of life for Siesta Key residents, businesses, and visitors, and she has long been a passionate and active advocate on issues related to density, illegal rentals, and other land use and environmental issues on Siesta Key.”