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Legal Battles Mount Over Big Pass

Posted on April 24, 2017

By David Conway,

When the Siesta Key Association filed a motion in one of two legal proceedings surrounding a proposal to dredge Big Pass, the court received a response from six of the seven involved parties.

The only one that didn’t respond? The city of Sarasota.

When Lido Key residents found out, they were discouraged. Residents who have been involved in the fight over the dredging, which would provide sand to renourish Lido’s shoreline, worried it was indicative of a pattern of behavior.

“I am wondering what the city is doing that the lawyers you have hired seem to be three to four steps behind,” Lido Key Residents Association member Paul Robbins wrote in an email to City Manager Tom Barwin.

The city’s lack of response does not show a lack of interest in the dispute, but rather highlights the complexity of the multifront legal battle surrounding plans to dredge Big Pass, according to City Attorney Robert Fournier.

There are two separate proceedings. One is in the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings. There, the Siesta Key Association, Save our Siesta Sands 2 and the Florida Wildlife Federation are challenging the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to issue a permit to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and city of Sarasota for the dredging.

The other is in 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, where the Siesta Key Association has sued the city, seeking an injunction to block the project. The lawsuit says the project, which would use Big Pass as the primary source for a 1.3 million cubic yard renourishment effort, requires approval from the County Commission, because some of the land is within the county’s jurisdiction.

Fournier said the city has recently prioritized the Circuit Court case, as the city is the sole defendant. He said Siesta Key’s motions in the administrative hearing, which sought to amend the allegations challenging the permit, were more procedural in nature, so the city did not feel as compelled to act.

“I know there’s concern and frustration about getting this done posthaste, but I don’t think they have anything to be worried about,” Fournier said.

There’s no imminent conclusion to the legal imbroglio, and all parties are heavily invested in reaching a positive outcome for their side. At an April Siesta Key Association meeting, board member Catherine Luckner made a fundraising appeal to the residents in attendance, stating the organization hoped to raise up to $100,000 for its legal fund.

Luckner was critical of the city’s response to the Circuit Court lawsuit, stating the city’s motion to dismiss the complaint did not actually address the legal issues at hand. The city’s response states the Circuit Court is not a proper venue for the challenge and that the county has not suggested its approval is necessary for the dredging to proceed, among other claims.

Luckner said the substance of the response and the time it took for the city to file it suggested officials aren’t devoting a significant amount of attention to the Big Pass issue.

“It makes me wonder, who’s in a hurry out there?” Luckner said. “It doesn’t sound like they have been.”

Luckner also suggested that Lido Key residents had been misled about the timeline of the project. Because no federal funding has been allocated for the project, it is unlikely to proceed until 2018, at the earliest. Luckner said Siesta’s legal actions have not delayed the commencement of the dredging, because there was no money available.

“I don’t think the Lido residents really understood that they weren’t going to get a renourishment and a project this year,” Luckner said. “We’ve been sort of made bad people because we’ve gotten in their way.”

The Lido residents are eager to begin the project as soon as possible, and they’re taking an active role in the legal proceedings. In addition to disputing the amendments to the administrative hearing, on April 13, the Lido Key Residents Association filed a motion to intervene in the Circuit Court lawsuit against the city.

Shoffstall acknowledged the unanswered funding question, but still said Siesta’s primary objective is to block the dredge.

“We do understand the timeline,” Shoffstall said. “We do understand that we need sand out there before there’s a hurricane. All they are doing is kicking the can down the road to drag this out.”


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