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Big Pass Sarasota
Siesta Key Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 2 months ago

Lawsuit challenging Big Pass dredge advances

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A judge has determined an argument from Siesta Key residents meets legal requirements, ordering the city to respond to the project’s opponents.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

After twice dismissing a Siesta Key organization’s effort to challenge the planned dredging of Big Pass, a circuit court judge determined the group’s latest case is worthy of further consideration.

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh issued an order Tuesday stating the Siesta Key Association’s lawsuit met necessary legal standards. As a result, the judge has given the city of Sarasota 20 days to respond to the group’s claims regarding the project.

The city is working with the Army Corps of Engineers on plans to take sand from Big Pass, which has never been dredged before, as part of a Lido Key shoreline nourishment effort. Although the state issued a permit for the project in June, Siesta Key residents have remained critical of the plans, expressing concern the dredging could negatively impact the barrier island to the south.

In October and January, McHugh dismissed two earlier law suits the Siesta Key Association filed contesting the plans, but her rulings allowed the resident group to resubmit its cases. The association’s latest argument, filed in January, claimed the city should be required to obtain approval from Sarasota County before moving ahead with the project. Siesta Key residents asked for a writ of mandamus, an order that compels a governmental body to comply with a legal duty.

In her ruling, McHugh writes the association’s efforts to make the city get county approval for the project reflect an overly broad interpretation of the city’s duties outlined in its comprehensive plan. But she also said the comprehensive plan does require the city to ensure the project is consistent with local, regional state and federal regulations.

McHugh concluded the Siesta Key Association had met all requirements for seeking a writ of mandamus. Per her order, the city has a 20-day window to make an argument against the issuance of the writ.

Catherine Luckner, a Siesta Key Association board member, was excited about the judge’s decision. She saw the order as validation of an argument Siesta Key residents have long made: The city needed to more thoroughly vet the project before it can move forward. Even if there isn’t a direct order to go to the county for approval, Luckner was hopeful the lawsuit would eventually force the city to conduct additional public analysis of the dredging.

“We can’t tell them what to decide, but there is a process for them to review their own rules,” Luckner said. “That’s kind of been what we’ve been asking for.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier didn’t see the order as a significant reflection of the merits of the case against the dredging. Instead, he described it as a standard procedural step. Because the Siesta Key Association’s argument had met the technical legal standards for a writ of mandamus, the city was now obliged to respond to the group’s claims.

“It is typically what happens,” Fournier said. “It really doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Fournier said the city planned to file a response to the judge’s decision, and also to seek a 10-day extension to the 20-day window outlined in the order. Fournier expected the case to eventually proceed to an in-person hearing and oral arguments. It could be several months before there’s a final ruling, he said.

The city hoped to begin work on the dredging later this year. Fournier said it’s uncertain what effects, if any, the lawsuit may have on the project’s timing.

“It’s very conceivable it could be resolved prior to that time, but it’s hard to speculate,” Fournier said.

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