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County hires big legal gun to get dredge project moving

BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator David Hamilton likened the task of accomplishing the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project to a foot race. By all accounts, this project has been a marathon, more than 15 years in the making.

On Tuesday, it shifted to a relay race. Or, more accurately, an obstacle course.

At Hamilton's recommendation, county commissioners agreed to ''pass the baton'' to a new player by hiring Richard Brightman, a Tallahassee attorney with significant experience in similar projects. His job will be to get the county through a maze of legal barriers so the project can finally go out to bid in March.

If that deadline is not met, the county could lose $6-million in state funds, essential money for the $9-million project.

So anxious are county officials to make the project work that Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he was ready to back his own pickup to the water's edge and get out a shovel.

The complication revolves around where to put the soil and silt dredged up from the bottom of the channel. For years, the county has worked to get a permit to place the material on a site owned by the prominent Manuel family on Eagle Nest Drive.

But as the permit was nearing approval, neighbors filed a formal objection to that site, tying it up in a potentially lengthy litigation.

The county then began working on an alternative site, an old wastewater treatment plant property the county owned on Shoal Line Boulevard. The county is working with the state to get a permit on that site as the Eagle Nest Drive permit winds its way through the legal process.

But there has also been a threat of a legal challenge of that permit.

One of those sites needs a valid permit and needs it soon for the project to move forward and that is why Hamilton suggested bringing in the bigger legal guns.

The discussion brought out more than a dozen people from the Hernando Beach area. Many urged commissioners to do whatever it takes to make the project a reality because of the dangers the channel poses to boaters and because of the important economic impacts to the boating, fishing and tourism industries.

Hernando Beach resident Dick Dobrow urged the county to hire the attorney. "Hopefully he can help us through the maze'' and get the dredging work accomplished.

"Safety is the main concern here,'' agreed his wife Ann Dobrow. "Please get it done. Please get it done quick.''

The others in Tuesday's audience were residents opposed to dumping the spoils of the dredge near their homes on Eagle Nest Drive.

"The first site is an environmentally sensitive area and it's a residential area,'' said neighbor Cindy Halley.

Attorney Michele Lieberman, who represents several parties in the challenge, told commissioners that the Manuel site has many problems. Because it is located in the zone most vulnerable to storm impacts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs assurances that there would be not flooding issues.

If those assurances aren't given, it could put all waterfront homeowners at risk of losing their federal flood insurance, she said.

Cliff Manuel, whose family owns that site, argued that it is still the best place to put the dredged sand and silt. He stated he was confident that the last concerns could be worked out and urged commissioners to hire the lawyer to resolve the remaining issues.

But the clock is ticking. Residents fighting the Manuel site are set to make their case before an administrative law judge this month.

Brightman's job will be to analyze the two proposed sites and advise the county which will have the best chance of making the March deadline.

Then he will work to either defend the first spoil site on Eagle Nest or work with the state to secure the permit for the Shoal Line Boulevard site in a manner that avoids a challenge from Manuel.

And if Shoal Line is chosen, his job would also be to negotiate with Manuel to minimize any liability for damages.

While Hamilton at first asked for approval to spend up to $25,000 on the lawyer's services, commissioners did not hold him to that ceiling. Hamilton said it might cost more to save the state funding and the project.

He did not recommend that they hire Brightman for another $25,000 as the attorney had proposed, so that he could lobby to keep the state money from evaporating. Hamilton has expressed some concern for the funding because state lawmakers are in a special legislative session to try to find ways to balance their budgets in the midst of a huge state revenue shortfall.

Commissioners also gave tentative approval to holding a so-called "shade'' meeting on Jan. 20 to discuss their legal strategies. Such meetings are closed to the public but the content of the discussions becomes public record after the legal issues are settled.

County attorney Garth Coller was doing additional research on shade meetings to report back to commissioners.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

County hires big legal gun to get dredge project moving 01/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:24pm]

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