Ramirez working to raise funds to support her efforts on behalf of island opponents of project
A March 27, 2023 jury trial has been scheduled for the first lawsuit that responded to the Sarasota County Commission’s approval of an eight-story, 170-room hotel on four parcels between Calle Miramar and Beach Road on Siesta Key.
Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez filed her complaint on Nov. 24, 2021, contending that the County Commission violated numerous provisions of the county’s Comprehensive Plan in voting 3-2 to allow the hotel project to move forward on slightly less than 1 acre on the edge of Siesta Village.
As Ramirez noted in a news release she issued after the complaint was filed, the Comprehensive Plan is the county’s “long-term growth plan.”
On Jan. 10, Circuit Judge Stephen Walker issued his order calling for the jury trial, which is set to begin at 9 a.m. on March 27. He has estimated the length of the proceeding to be five days, the order notes. It is to be conducted in Courtroom 7C in the Silvertooth Judicial Center, which stands at 2002 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.
The trial will be held in-person, not via Zoom, “unless the presiding judge provides otherwise,” the order points out. However, a March 21, 2023 pre-trial conference will be conducted via Zoom, the order says.
Ramirez also is continuing to raise funds to assist with the litigation. She has pointed to the fact that she filed the complaint for the benefit of all the Siesta residents who oppose the hotel project. If she loses the case, she has explained, she could face the prospect of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.
Section 163.3215(8)(c) of the Florida Statutes says, “The prevailing party in a challenge to a development order … is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred in challenging or defending the order, including reasonable appellate attorney fees and costs.”
The County Commission’s approval of the hotel plans constitutes a development order, under the guidelines of state law.
On her Siesta Key Community Facebook page, Ramirez has noted that she began a GoFundMe campaign on Nov. 28, 2021. Her goal is to raise $75,000.
The GoFundMe page says, “Help us stop the County from turning Siesta Key into Miami!
“Sarasota County Commissioners voted to turn our laid-back island into an overly commercialized mega-hotel zone. We are challenging their decision in court. Our county’s growth laws prohibit the addition of mega-sized hotels on our island yet the Commissioners ignored the law in order to please a few outside developers.”
The page adds, “For more information on our legal challenge, visit our website: www.SiestaKeyCommunity.com.”
The Siesta Key Community Facebook page explains that the organization is a private one “that advocates for the protection of the quality of life of residents, visitors and for the environment of Siesta Key Florida.”
The ‘standing’ issue
During the November 2021 Siesta Key Association meeting, Director Robert Luckner discussed residents’ intent to challenge the County Commission’s approval of the Calle Miramar hotel project. However, he stressed the need to find individuals who had the best chance of proving “standing,” a legal term referring to someone who would suffer direct harm as a result of a specific action that could be redressed.
Although Assistant County Attorney David Pearce has argued in the county’s response to her complaint that Ramirez cannot prove standing on the basis of the applicable state law, Ramirez’s attorneys have listed a number of factors to assert otherwise. Among them, her suit notes that Ramirez’s residence is located approximately 0.65 miles from the hotel site. If the project goes forward, the complaint says, 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 also 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.”
‘A declaratory judgment or injunctive relief’
In filing the lawsuit on behalf of Ramirez, her attorneys — Pamela Jo Hatley and Martha Collins of the Collins Law Group in Tampa — noted on a court form that Ramirez is seeking a nonmonetary declaratory judgment or injunctive relief.
The Bernhard Law Firm in Miami explains in a “white paper” that “[d]isputes often arise over certain rights, status, or other equitable or legal relations. … These circumstances leave Floridians with an immediate need to know the true meaning and scope of their rights and legal relationships.” Therefore, the paper adds, “[T]hey can seek certainty through Florida’s Declaratory Judgment Act (Florida Statutes Chapter 86).”
The paper also points out, “An action for declaratory relief [under the guidelines of the Florida Statutes] is an expedient way to resolve disputes …”
A Jan. 10 order that Walker, the presiding judge in Ramirez’s case, issued includes the note, “The Court re-classifies this case as a ‘Streamline’ case.”
That order called for a case management conference on April 26 of this year. However, a notation that appeared on the court docket this week says that proceeding has been cancelled.
A case management conference can deal with a variety of issues, including the potential for a settlement and the schedule for the parties to turn over to each other copies of all of the documents they have that are related to the litigation, including witness statements obtained through proceedings called depositions. Such provision of materials is called “discovery.”
As for “injunctive relief”: In Ramirez’s situation, that could mean a court ruling that the Calle Miramar project could not proceed as designed.
One primary focus of Ramirez’s arguments is that the County Commission violated Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the Comprehensive Plan, which restricts residential density in developments on Siesta Key to the level in place as of March 13, 1989. The hotel parcels are zoned Commercial General in the Siesta Key Overlay District. The regulations in place since 1979 had allowed hotel uses on Commercial General property, but the room count was limited to 26 per acre, if the rooms had no kitchens.
The goal of Policy 2.9.1 was to facilitate evacuations of island residents in the event of an approaching hurricane or the prediction of another type of natural disaster. Only two roads connect Siesta Key to the mainland; each of them has a drawbridge.
Prior to approving the Calle Miramar hotel application, the majority of the county commissioners agreed with agents for the developers that residential density calculations should not be used in conjunction with hotel construction.
William Merrill III, a partner in the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, argued before the commissioners that the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), says hotel rooms “are fundamentally non-residential commercial land uses.”
Todd Dary, manager of the county’s Planning Services Division, told the county’s Planning Commission that staff agreed with that assertion and had been considering such a change in county regulations before the Calle Miramar hotel application was submitted to county staff in May 2021.
“We do believe a floor/area ratio basically … should be used to physically dictate what the maximum [hotel size] is on a piece of property,” Dary added. The county’s Special Exception standards, he said, would serve as “additional safeguards.
The agents for the developers of the Calle Miramar project had to request two Special Exceptions from the County Commission: one, to allow “transient accommodations” — the county term for hotel rooms — on the site; the second, to allow the building height to exceed the limit of 35 feet above base flood elevation for parcels zoned Commercial General. “Base flood elevation” refers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines for preventing flood damage to structures. In the Calle Miramar hotel situation, the total height would be about 93 feet.
A motion to intervene
On Jan. 13, The Sarasota News Leader has learned, the developers of the project filed a Motion to Intervene in Ramirez’s case.
The attorneys for Calle Miramar LLC and SKH 1 LLC point out that her complaint is a challenge to their clients’ plans.
Those attorneys are Scott A. McLaren, Shane T. Costello and Jarod A. Brazel of the Tampa firm Hill, Ward & Henderson.
Several years ago, McLaren represented former state Sen. Pat Neal, founder of Neal Communities, in a case involving County Commission approval of what was then called the Grand Lakes community of 1,097 homes planned south of Clark Road and east of Interstate 75. The county prevailed in that case.
Neal Communities’ affiliate Ibis Road LLC was an intervenor in the litigation.
If Ramirez prevails, the new motion says, the Calle Miramar resort cannot be constructed. “Calle Miramar and SKH 1 should be permitted to intervene as [defendants] to [Ramirez’s] claim because they are the property owners and/or applicants for the land development approval being challenged, and as such, are the real parties that stand to gain or lose by the outcome of this lawsuit.”
The motion also points out that “Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.230 provides that ‘[a]nyone claiming an interest in pending litigation may at any time be permitted [to participate in the litigation].”
The presence of the two limited liability companies in the case, the motion adds, “is necessary or proper to a complete determination of this action …”
Calle Miramar LLC, whose principal is New York City resident Louise Khaghan, owns the hotel site, the motion explains, while SKH 1, whose principal is RE/MAX Realtor Robert Anderson Jr., is the long-time lessee of the four parcels where the hotel would stand.
Another document, filed on Jan. 19 on behalf of Calle Miramar LLC and SKH 1 LLC, objects to an order for a magistrate to conduct a hearing on the Motion to Intervene. That document contends that presiding Judge Walker should conduct the hearing.
As of the publication deadline for this issue of the News Leader, the judge had not responded to the Calle Miramar/SKH 1 motions.