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Hotel developers vs. Siesta Key activists: Round Two

Written by on Friday, November 24, 2023

On Tuesday, Sarasota County commissioners will discuss rule changes that could bring big hotels.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Nov. 24, 2023

Host: Siesta Key community activists won in court, and Sarasota County made it official a few weeks ago by forgoing an appeal. But the next challenge is already brewing: This Tuesday, county commissioners will discuss yet another proposal to build big hotels on the barrier island. WSLR News reporter Ramon Lopez explains.

Ramon Lopez: The Sarasota County Commission on Tuesday, Nov. 28 will tackle new controversial Siesta Key hotel proposals.

Closely monitoring the issue are residents who have succeeded so far to keep large hotels off the famous beach. Those against mega hotels there thought that the matter had been put to rest. The county commissioners recently directed staff to drop a legal appeal and rescind a controversial change to the county’s development code. The revision would have removed a cap on hotel rooms on Siesta Key. They failed to convince a circuit court judge that the change did not violate a long-standing growth policy that barred intensification of growth on the county’s barrier islands. The successful two-year court battle was led by Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez.

Lourdes Ramirez

But in light of the legal setback, real estate developers are now looking to change the county’s growth rules via a workaround.
Now before the county commission are three significant amendments to Sarasota’s long-range growth vision, know as the comprehensive plan. They are backed by a trio of applicants, including wealthy developers Benderson Development and Dave Balot. Each want to build large hotels on Siesta Key.

The county commissioners could move forward on one or all of the amendments. They could reject them outright, a fervent hope of the challengers. They might direct county staff to seriously study the issue. Mega hotel haters could also live with that.

Lourdes Ramirez says a comprehensive evaluation on the issue is most necessary.

Lourdes Ramirez: I feel that — learning what I learned in the past two years, and knowing that there’s been a high turnover among the county commission and staff — they don’t know the history of Siesta Key. They don’t know where we stand. Last time they did a comprehensive study on Siesta Key was 1981. They did another study in 1999, but it was not in depth. But in 1981, they actually looked at how many units was out on Siesta Key, what the infrastructure was like. We will need another study. Let’s do a comprehensive study of Siesta Key, the infrastructure, the hurricane evacuations, the actual number of growth that’s happening, because we have been growing. Anybody who’s been on Siesta Key knows all the new houses that are coming, a lot of them hotel houses — what’s the impact of those things? I think that’s the ideal. Just study Siesta Key. At the end, then decide that — obviously in my opinion — you should not increase density or intensity out there. I hope the county commission realizes that what’s being proposed is not safe. And maybe they will say ‘study it more’. That’s the ideal scenario, that they don’t approve any of those proposals to go forward. Because there is not enough information.

Proposed Siesta Key hotel.

RL: The outspoken community activist is yet again leading the charge against the wealthy real estate developers. She says the amendments will take away key protections that have limited Siesta Key’s growth and have protected the public. Ramirez told WSLR News she is ready to start the next war of words at Tuesday’s county commission hearing, and also
go back to court, if needed.

Ramirez is not anti-hotel. She supports high-quality, appropriately- scaled hotels that stay within the existing law. She says the county commissioners must chose quality over quantity.

LR: There’s three developers, all going to hurt Siesta Key, because we are the most densely populated area in the county. And we can’t have more people on a barrier island that requires hurricane evacuation. So that’s why they’re proposing these changes because they want to increase density. I’m not anti-hotel. If you want to do a hotel as allowed in the code today, 26 units per acre. That’s ideal. That’s fine. You’re following the code, you’re allowing hotels, without this 210- or 270-unit monstrosity.

RL: She is particularly alarmed by what Benderson is proposing.

LR: What was on the Benderson proposal was so blatant! I mean, they were literally taking out pages of protective policies for Siesta Key and I it turns my stomach.

RL: Ramirez stands for the status quo.

LR: Right now we’re protected by policies that’s been around since 1989. And if you open up that door, you open up that Pandora’s Box even an inch, you know that developers are going to open it up even wider later.

RL: She sees more court action should the county commission ignore the Siesta Key mega hotel opponents.

LR: And now that I’ve been through the state and circuit courts, I know what my options are. The good thing of in past two years going through the state and local lawsuits, we’ve developed a lot of good information. And you have to think, ‘those are my options’. The legal truth is the truth. And they can’t buy the justice system. That’s how I feel, and so they might get the county commission to approve it. But I really feel, especially now that I won these two cases, that when it comes to the law, the judges are not going to look at who is making the proposals.

RL: A judge previously ruled that the county commissioners violated the comp plan. A judge would now rule on whether they can legally change the comp plan.

Ramirez says her fight is a matter of principle.

LR: Around 2001, I started seeing things happening on Siesta Key that don’t seem right. And I’m a law-and-order kind of gal. So when I see something that’s wrong, and it violates the law, I get very passionate about that. You have to follow the law. Otherwise, we’ll have chaos.

RL: This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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