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Siesta Key Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018 1 year ago

Big Pass legal expenses mount for Siesta, Lido

Resident groups on both sides of the contested project have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their arguments.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Save Our Siesta Sand 2 has raised more than $350,000 as it wages a legal challenge against the proposed dredging of Big Pass, but the group needs more money.

That’s why, on Nov. 27, the Siesta Key group held a fundraiser at St. Boniface Episcopal Church. The event included presentations from environmentalist Jono Miller, attorney Jane West and Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce board member Mark Smith, all of whom expressed concern about the possible effects of the planned Lido Key shoreline renourishment.

But the goal of the event was to encourage donations on Giving Tuesday, part of a renewed effort to raise funds as Save Our Siesta Sand 2 readies a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. At the event, the group raised $8,860, a total that a matching fund doubled to $17,720.

Although the group had already raised $358,875 since its inception in 2014, it has set a new $100,000 fundraising goal to help pay for expert witnesses in the federal lawsuit.

Save Our Siesta Sand 2 isn’t alone. As the city of Sarasota partners with the Army Corps on the planned Big Pass dredge, resident groups on Siesta and Lido have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars toward legal efforts to contest or support the project.

The city of Sarasota has paid more than $727,000 in Big Pass legal expenses. That includes $418,374 to the city's chosen outside counsel, $203,829 to the law firm the Lido Key Residents Association retained and $105,415 in additional expenses for expert testimony, engineering consultants and photography. 

Although the state has approved the project and two legal challenges from Siesta residents have failed, litigation is ongoing — and so are the fundraising campaigns.

In October, Lido Key Residents Association President Carl Shoffstall went before the St. Armands Business Improvement District seeking a $5,000 grant toward the association’s legal expenses. To that point, the Lido residents had raised $307,836, but still owed more than $113,000 to the law firm representing them in the ongoing litigation.

Shoffstall expressed a similar sentiment to Siesta Key stakeholders in describing the mounting legal expenses: The resident association didn’t expect to become as involved in the legal battle as it did, but as the challenges dragged out, the expenses mounted. Shoffstall said the association is in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so all future donations to the legal fund will be tax exempt. The group also intends to conduct additional fundraisers in 2019.

Catherine Luckner, a Siesta Key Association board member, said the legal costs associated with contesting the dredging were three or four times higher than the group originally anticipated. She attributed the increased expenses to the city’s efforts to have the SKA lawsuit dismissed, which proved successful in October. The association has since refiled its complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

“It’s been having to have live hearings, having to have our attorney drive each way from Tallahassee,” Luckner said.

Both Luckner and Shoffstall expressed optimism some relief was in sight, with the renewed circuit court challenge expected to conclude relatively soon.

Until Siesta Key residents have exhausted their opportunities for contesting the project, however, more expenses will mount on both sides.

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