Since 2016, Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez has been the face, and the lightning rod, of the fight against Sarasota County government and developers to prevent high-density hotels from being built on the barrier island.
At great personal and financial risk, she has been named as the only plaintiff in court battles — in which she has prevailed — at the Division of Administrative Hearings and 12th Circuit Judicial Court levels. Although her name stands alone as plaintiff, she says she represents a significant number of fellow islanders struggling to maintain the quaint beachside character of Siesta Key.
More than a matter of doing what’s right, Ramirez says keeping high-rise hotels off the island is also a matter of public safety.
Recognizing coming changes in the composition of the County Commission in 2012 — changes she perceived as not in the best interest of Siesta Key residents — she ran her first of three unsuccessful campaigns for a seat on the board.
“I first ran because I really felt that the neighborhoods needed to be represented,” Ramirez says. “I saw the writing on the wall, and I was worried about who future county commissioners were going to be, and I started to see how the developers were too influential. I wanted to be sure that the residents were represented and everything was fair.”
Her fears, she says, were realized. “We’ve seen it go downhill since. We haven’t had a good County Commission that represented the people, and we’re seeing it get worse and worse.”
The 2021 approval of two hotels on Siesta Key by the County Commission was the flashpoint, one that has brought two ill-fated attempts by many Siesta Key residents to incorporate the Key into its own town, and to her lawsuits against the county.
Through her attorney, Ramirez successfully argued that special exceptions made to approve a 170-room hotel in Siesta Village and a 120-room hotel at Old Stickney Point Road were in violation of the county’s 1989 comprehensive plan. In December, a 12th Circuit Judicial Court judge ruled that her legal fees were recoverable from the county, but not from the developers who joined the defense as intervenors.
Although she says she has “several dozen” supporters who are helping cover her legal costs, going in she knew all the risk was hers, and hers alone.
“I’m just one of those stubborn people who really believes in the justice system, who really believes in right versus wrong, and I was determined,” Ramirez says. “I knew it was a big risk. Nothing’s ever guaranteed, but I really felt it needed to be done.”
Had she not prevailed, she faced the prospect of having to pay the legal fees for both sides. “Had I lost, it would have all been on me because I was the only named plaintiff,” she says.
Even as her lawsuits were active, Ramirez ran for the County Commission District 2 seat in 2022, falling short in the primary to now-Commissioner Mark Smith. She says she wouldn’t accept any developer campaign contributions, not that any were offered, because of continuing concerns that the development community holds too much sway with the board, influence that puts the residents at risk.
Siesta Key has two evacuation points — both two-lane drawbridges — and only two-lane roads to empty the island in the event of an emergency. Adding the density hotels would bring, Ramirez says, will only exacerbate the danger.
“It comes down to public safety. I’m a strong believer that the government must have a narrow focus, and it does a lot more than it really should do,” she says. “The number one role of government is public safety, and when they’re starting to push that aside to please special interests and big developers, that is the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen. That is what makes me more motivated in this fight because we’re talking about people’s lives.”
Despite prevailing in litigation, Ramirez’ fight is not over. The County Commission has approved a study of a Benderson Development’s proposal to reclassify hotel rooms as non-residential with unlimited density, providing that hotel use is limited to 15% of the commercially zoned property on the Key.
That application included a plan to build a 210-room hotel in Siesta Village at a height of 85 feet. The site includes the strip center that includes Flavio’s restaurant and a retail center across Ocean Boulevard that is fronted by Bonjour French Cafe.
If successful and upheld in the litigation that is certain to follow, Ramirez says the pressure for additional hotel development will only intensify. And if the amendment is affirmed in court, she believes more hotel plans will follow that the county cannot prevent on the basis of property rights versus the 15% limit proposed by Benderson.
“The county is going to lose those suits going forward,” Ramirez says. “If Benderson can build theirs, when others argue their property rights are being violated the county won’t be able to justify that.”
Ramirez is already involved in opposing the Benderson plan. Her attorney has sent a letter to the county urging it to deny any and all applications to amend the comprehensive plan ostensibly for the purpose of building hotels on Siesta Key. And she is once again willingly exposing herself to another round of legal fees on behalf of her fellow islanders.
“A lot of people have been very upset about this, so it’s not just me,” she says.
“I just happened to have the most experience in zoning code issues, but I am not the only one out here fighting the cause. I went down the legal challenges route because I just knew that some of the groups were afraid to go to litigation, but I knew I was right and I knew what we are fighting for has to be defended.”