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Rural residents fight suburban sprawl in lawsuit against Sarasota County

Written by on Thursday, July 20, 2023

Last fall, Sarasota County Commissioners allowed Lakewood Ranch to pave over 5,000 acres of pastureland. Three residents of the Myakka area have filed suit against the county.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: July 19, 2023


Official Transcript

Johannes Werner: Last fall, Sarasota County Commissioners allowed the owners of Lakewood Ranch to get around limitations to urban sprawl and pave over 5,000 acres of pastureland in the rural east of the county to build thousands of mostly luxury homes in more cul-de-sacs. Three residents in the old Myakka area have filed suit against the county and hearings have begun this week. The WSLR team sat through part of the second day of four days of hearings by an administrative judge.

Becky Ayech is in the fight of her life, but she was freezing. Outside the county administration building yesterday in downtown Sarasota, a record heatwave was paralyzing life. But inside, there she was as one of three plaintiffs trying to stop the developers of Lakewood Ranch to overwhelm the old Myakka community with suburban sprawl. Rather than help her sheep fend off worms during rainy season, Ayech sat quietly through the second day of four days of administrative court hearings in the conference room on the third floor of the windowless building, with the air conditioning so cold, she was wearing a fleece jacket and a windbreaker on top of that.

Equally cold seemed the issues exchanged between lawyers and the county planner. It was a constant flow of zoning lingo and documents and maps, near impossible to understand by non-experts, only livened up every once in a while by plaintiff’s lawyer Richard Grosso’s questions about issues that matter to regular mortals, such as, where are we going to get enough water for 5,000 new homes? What about the traffic or what about wildlife?

Across from Grosso sat, clad in a black robe, administrative judge Hetal Desai. For hours on end, she seemed attentive, upright, rarely leaning back, sitting on the edge of her chair, directing the traffic of lawyers questioning a witness, sustaining or rejecting objections.

County planner Brett Harrington seemed to have the exact opposite experience of Ayech. For a second day, he was in the hot seat, facing the questions from the lawyer hired by the county and, more difficult, the plaintiff’s lawyer. At one point, Harrington sought help opening a box with a pointer because his palms were too sweaty. He often responded in such a low voice, the loud hum of the AC system made it hard to understand him. Understanding him was not made easier by the fact that he rarely responded with a clear-cut yes or no.

Meanwhile, most comfortable and in their elements seemed to be the suit-and-tie-clad half dozen lawyers around the table, most of them representing the defendant, Sarasota County. More lawyers representing the developers sat in the audience. The county’s lawyers seemed better choreographed than the plaintiff’s team, flawlessly projecting the right documents and maps on cue.

The sense of this being a home game for the defendant was underlined by the fact that the hearings are taking place two floors above the County Commission chambers, where the alleged violations were cast into concrete by a vote last fall.

Even so, the outcome is not foretold. In a similar case brought by residents of Siesta Key alleging Sarasota County violated its own comprehensive plan, Attorney Richard Grosso scored a first round victory three months ago. Stay tuned.

This was Johannes Werner reporting for WSLR News.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm