Host: It’s score One for sprawl in rural east Sarasota County, Zero for one of the oldest, still-standing rural settlements in the area. An administrative judge made a recommendation against a couple trying to hold off development near their home, but the plaintiffs continue to plow ahead with their costly case. We have the details.
Johannes Werner: Hetal Desai is the administrative law judge assigned to a high-impact legal case in Sarasota about development beyond the urban development boundary. As an unprecedented construction boom is sweeping this area, many people have been closely watching this legal challenge to the county’s land-use change, eagerly awaiting her decision. She held hearings in July and August, and a ruling had been expected as early as October.
On Wednesday, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs trying to hold off Lakewood Ranch Southeast, a 5,000-home project that would gobble up thousands of acres of pastureland near Old Miakka. The judge submitted what’s called a “recommended order” to the Florida Department of Commerce, which will issue the final ruling in the case.
Aerial map of the land the Lakewood Ranch developer would like to fill with up to 5,000 homes.
Mike Hutchinson, one of three plaintiffs in the case against Sarasota County and the company behind Lakewood Ranch, translates:
Mike Hutchinson: The administrative judge ruled for Lakewood Ranch and against us. We have 15 days to appeal, but basically the way it works is, her order is not final until it’s reviewed by [the Department of] Commerce. We have 15 days to voice our objections to them, things we disagree with. And we don’t think she got it right.
JW: How do you feel about it?
MH: Well, I guess when we got into this, we we knew that this could happen. So for me, it’s not the end of the world, or anything like that. It’s sort of the path we thought might happen. Even so, when we went into the trial we thought we had a rough chance of a certain amount … We thought it was better; we thought we had better than a 50-50 chance. We thought we had a good chance of winning it, because of just watching the judge, and watching the evidence that was presented, and the witnesses. So we were pretty surprised here. But when we started, we always knew that judges are a wild card. Judges can look at things in a different way than you do. So we were prepared that this could happen.
JW: Hutchinson and his wife Eileen Fitzgerald will appeal. Richard Grosso, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, believes they stand a fighting chance in the appeal, due to what he says are “errors” by the judge.
In a statement, Grosso said the judge’s recommendation that the land-use change was in compliance with the law is “based on several surprising legal errors, completely overlooking or misreading clear legal, mandatory standards governing comprehensive land changes.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers say they will file “formal exceptions to the order to the Department of Commerce, which, based on clear legal violations, we expect to reject the judge’s flawed recommendation”.
MH: Our attorney is really quick. Within two minutes when it first came out yesterday, he found some things that he thinks fits that. So he’s going over the whole thing in detail and he will be writing up a response. And so he’ll send that to the Department of Commerce. They’ll review that with with the judge’s ruling, and then they will either go along with the ruling or not.
If the appeal fails, the bulldozers could move in.
MH: It’s suspended now. They can’t break ground, or do any of that kind of stuff. And once it goes through the Department of Commerce, and it’s a win, I think they can go forward — but obviously at risk. Meaning, if it’s overturned in circuit court, they might have to unwind some stuff. Yeah, our attorney actually won a case years ago where somebody did something like that. They built something, and then they lost, and the judge told to tear it down.
JW: Hutchinson and Fitzgerald, long-time residents of Bern Creek Ranches, filed the “administrative challenge” in November 2022. They challenged an amendment to the comprehensive plan by the Sarasota County Commission for Lakewood Ranch Southeast.
The case so far has probably cost Hutchinson and his wife tens of thousands of dollars, and it will cost more, as it winds its way through the next instances.
MH: I don’t expect the appeal to be particularly expensive, compared to what we’ve been through already.
JW: Any estimate as to how much you spent already on this case?
MH: I’m not sure I want to tell you that. But yeah, it’s a lot. It gets tricky because the 501C4 is paying part, but Eileen and I are paying the bulk.
JW: Even so, Hutchinson says they are determined to “go all the way”.
MH: Yeah, so we signed up for this with our attorney. We basically said, unless he tells us it’s a total waste of time, we were prepared to go all the way. We got the estimate from the attorney, what it would cost to go the whole way, and we know we have to wait and come up with that money. Assuming we lose that, we can appeal — I think it’s to the circuit court or to another court. So it could take another year.
JW: The plaintiffs and their supporters in the Old Miakka community created a non-profit, Keep the Country Inc., as a vehicle for donations. Information about the case and how to donate can be found at SarasotaCountry.net.
All this is playing out ahead of an election this November for District One of the Sarasota County Commission, where Old Miakka is located. District One so far has one candidate — Teresa Mast — who is heavily backed by the construction industry and developers, far outspending a low-profile Republican contender, Les Nichols. Here is how Hutchinson responds to the political situation.
MH: I’m a member of the Republican Party executive committee, or whatever. So, you know, plenty of people are looking for candidates and who to support and all that. So there’s a lot going on right now. There’s in — what is it? — I think it’s Venice. It’s got Tom Knight and Neil Rainford. Rainford is obviously in the developers’ pocket. We think that Knight has a good chance, and that he will probably be more of a straight-up guy, go by the law, and not be, you know, in anybody’s pocket. We’re hoping for that. And hopefully, we can find a candidate to run in District One, a Republican that’s more like Knight, that would run against Teresa Mast, because she’s obviously a friend of the developers as well.
JW: This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.
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