Lourdes Ramirez scores second legal victory, sees bright future for Siesta Key
Written by WSLR News on Sunday, August 27, 2023
It’s now two for Siesta Key activist Lourdes Ramirez, zero for Sarasota County in an ongoing legal battle over two high-density hotels approved to be built on the barrier island.
By Sophia Brown
Original Air Date: August 25, 2023
Johannes Werner: It’s now two for Siesta Key activist Lourdes Ramirez, zero for the Sarasota County Commission. The second ruling in recent months against the county’s approval for big hotel projects on the barrier island is sending a new kind of signal to an industry that is used to dominate our region’s economy and politics. WSLR’s Sophia Brown talked to Ramirez to find out what’s next.
Host: It’s a familiar story: developers set their eye on a residential street or an untouched plot of land. They have big plans for high-end condos, a hotel, or a lucrative mixed-use project. But to get there, the developers need zoning changes, which, in the case of the Sarasota County Commission, they always seem to get.
Those who attempt to fight off those zoning changes in court are usually thrown into a world of bureaucracy and have a long and hard battle ahead of them. But one resident of Siesta Key proved this week that the impossible is possible. Lourdes Ramirez won her second legal victory in four months against developers looking to build to high-density hotels on Siesta Key after they had already been approved by the county.
The core of this lawsuit is that in 2021, Sarasota County removed a regulation that limited the number of hotel rooms per acre on Siesta Key. This was followed by approval to build the Calle Miramar, a 170-room hotel in Siesta Key Village, plus a 120-room hotel near the Stickney Point bridge. The hotel room limit had been 26 rooms per acre, but these two hotels were 177 units per acre and 102 units per acre respectively.
Siesta Key hasn’t had a hotel of this scale built on it in decades, and Ramirez decided to file a lawsuit challenging the construction of the Calle Miramar specifically, but the lawsuit also applies to the Stickney Point hotel. She claimed that it violated the county’s comprehensive plan. Ramirez already secured one victory in April with this argument, when Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyck ruled that the county’s 1989 Comprehensive Plan specifically addresses development on barrier islands like Siesta Key, and sets the residential limit firmly at 26 units per acre. Judge Van Wyk ruled that a structure exceeding this density was potentially dangerous as it could lead to “difficulties of evacuating large numbers of people from the keys in times of emergency.”
This week, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll also ruled in Ramirez’s favor and found that the same 1989 plan was in the right and that the county was in the wrong. Judge Carroll wrote that all textual and contextual clues reject the counties and the hotel developers argument that “there is no limit as to density to build hotels on Siesta Key.”
For Ramirez, this victory is long overdue. She first moved to Siesta Key in 1999 and became a vocal activist in the area by 2001, when she saw developers buying out land on the island to tear down the quaint cottages and oak trees to build what she calls “monster homes.: The way Ramirez tells it, as both an idyllic paradise and a serious moneymaker, Siesta Key has always been a target for development in Sarasota County.
Lourdes Ramirez: Actually, the first zoning code that ever was created in the county was Siesta Key because they were so concerned that everybody wants to be on the island. We provide the county million dollars in bed tax because our condos can be rented by the night. So we have a lot of tourists come out here to stay overnight. So I think the county’s looking for more. They’re always looking for more tax dollars and trying to exploit Siesta Key’s popularity by bringing in hotels where they can just get more bed tax.
Host: She estimates that out of the 10,000 units on the island, only about 3,000 of them or homes for full-time residents. She says that she and the other residents see Siesta Key as a resident location with a tourism economy…
LR: But I think the county sees us as a tourist location with annoying residents, and they’d rather see it only as a tourist place.
Host: Ramirez still has a ways to go with her legal battle. She accused the county of violating a total of 10 different parts of the Comprehensive Plan, eight policies and two objectives. Three of them came before Judge Carroll and he ruled in Ramirez’s favor for one of them—the most important one, the one she needed to prevent the hotels from being built. But he ruled in the county’s favor for the two others.
Now both sides have the option to pursue the other seven counts and have about three and a half weeks to determine what they want to do next. Either way, this latest victory adds fuel to the fire of another Siesta Key activist group that launched in 2021, also in response to these high-density hotels initially being approved. Save Siesta Key is a group of residents fighting to let their community incorporate and become self-governing, which even got the support of the local legislative delegation in 2022 and resulted in a bill that would have allowed Siesta Key residents to form their own town.
The bill died in committee for lack of support last year, and Ramirez’s lawsuit is separate from Save Siesta Key. But still, she says that she sees this latest victory aiding the group as it prepares for the 2025 legislative year.
LR: Because people are just angry, that we all went to the County Commission hearings, told the County Commission,”So, you’re violating the comprehensive plan,” where it was completely ignored. And we really felt that the county wasn’t looking out for our best interest. Because when it comes down to it, why would you want to add more people to a barrier island where there’s only two exit points and one two-lane road that connects those two exit points? It’s a dangerous situation to putting us on.
And that’s where the incorporation people said, “Okay, if you’re not going to watch out for us, then we will need local government that will look out for us.” And everything I’ve gathered, all the information, all the history of Siesta Key and Siesta Key zoning is important for the incorporation effort. You know, even though it’s two different things, it is for them to also show to local legislators and say, “Look, this is the reason why we need to protect Siesta Key. This is the reason why we need our own government.”
Host: Ramirez also says that she hopes this case sets a new precedent for locals who may feel hopeless when up against private developers, as a reminder that there’s a community across the water to back them up.
LR: The Florida legislator made it more difficult for locals and grassroots to go against the big developers, by now imposing that if you lose, you have to pay the prevailing attorney fees. But I believe that if you’re a part of a community, and you have a strong community group and you can raise funds, because that’s the important thing, you can make a big difference.
Host: This has been Sophia Brown reporting for WSLR News.