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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 25, 2019 3 weeks ago

Siesta, city face off at Big Pass hearing

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Representatives for the city and island residents questioned witnesses as the legal battle over a Lido shoreline project continues.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A judgment in a years-long lawsuit over the planned dredging of Big Pass for a Lido Key shoreline project could come as soon as August following testimony at a hearing in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court on Tuesday.

Attorneys for the Lido Key Residents Association, the Siesta Key Association and the city of Sarasota questioned witnesses over the course of five hours at the Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center. Tuesday’s hearing highlighted a key legal argument as the city and Lido residents attempt to persuade a judge to reject another challenge to the dredging from Siesta resident groups.

Siesta residents are seeking a writ of mandamus, an order that compels a governmental body to comply with a legal duty. Siesta residents have argued the city has failed to obtain necessary local approvals to proceed with the project. Ahead of the hearing, the city and the Lido residents group filed a joint memorandum of law arguing the Siesta residents had no grounds to request the writ and stating the city had already sufficiently approved the project.

In April, Judge Andrea McHugh denied the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit and set a hearing to review four points:

  • When the Siesta Key Association asked for an official determination the project was consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and other regulations;
  • Which city officials determined the project was consistent with regulations;
  • When city officials made that determination; and
  • How the city provided notice regarding that determination.

City and Lido attorneys argued the Siesta Key Association hadn’t formally requested a consistency determination until this year, after McHugh authorized an alternative writ of mandamus that allowed the suit to proceed. They said City Engineer Alex DavisShaw and Director of Development Services Tim Litchet determined the project was consistent with the comprehensive plan in 2015 and cited a letter included with the permit application.

Siesta Key Association Board Member Robert Luckner said the group made a formal demand of the city at a March 2017 meeting with officials. City Manager Tom Barwin and DavisShaw both said no demand was made at that meeting.

Representing the Siesta Key Association, attorney Kent Safriet disputed that the application materials represented a thorough, official determination of consistency. Luckner testified the cited letter was just one of thousands of pages included with project materials online and was not highlighted in any way.

Although Safriet questioned whether the letter was sufficient approval, DavisShaw and Litchet both testified the city followed the same procedures it had historically used for similar projects. The city argued Siesta residents were attempting to apply irrelevant portions of the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code to the renourishment project.

The city is partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on plans to take sand from Big Pass, which has never been dredged, to renourish portions of the Lido Key shore. Although the state approved the proposal last year, and the Army Corps has authorized funding, Siesta residents continue to criticize the project and express concern that dredging could negatively affect the barrier island to the south.

The Siesta Key Association first filed a circuit court lawsuit contesting the proposal in March 2017. McHugh previously dismissed the suit in October 2018 and January 2019, but in February she determined the latest revision to the challenge met applicable legal standards.

McHugh gave both parties a 15-day window to submit closing arguments in writing with a deadline of Aug. 7 to file no more than 20 pages. City Attorney Robert Fournier said it’s possible McHugh could issue an order later in the month.

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