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Attorney dives into springs feud

A fan of the mermaid park will work for free against Swiftmud.

By CHANDRA BROADWATER
Published February 7, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - Jacksonville lawyer Leslie Goller was 6 when she fell in love with the Weeki Wachee mermaids.

At 49, she still is. So much that she has volunteered to help the attraction for free in its ongoing legal battle with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Goller will help Weeki Wachee attorney Joe Mason as the two sides prepare to head back to court in August. They are expected to pick an exact date sometime this week.

After three years of trials, mediation, appeals and meetings, there are still differences that stem from a lease - Swiftmud owns the land the attraction is located on - plus a few other disagreements.

"I'm picky with who I'll handle," Goller said from her office at the Terrell Hogan law firm in Jacksonville. "To me, Weeki Wachee is not the polluter in this situation."

Goller said she made her decision after a weekend trip to the attraction last month. She had lived in Dunedin until she was 7, when her family moved to Washington, D.C.

After attending Duke University and graduating from the law school at Washington and Lee University, Goller came back to Florida in 1983. Though she primarily handles personal injury cases, she has fought her fair share of environmental battles in Florida courts.

In the past, she received Sierra Club awards and worked in various capacities to protect the St. Johns River and other state waters.

During her recent visit, Goller was shocked to find out from women in the gift shop that Weeki Wachee was still in litigation.

Goller believes that Swiftmud is to blame for the shoddy condition of the springs. The dead eelgrass and huge globs of algae growing along the river bed - visible from the river cruise - are because of runoff from U.S. 19, she said.

As landlord, Swiftmud is responsible for dealing with that, she said. She believes runoff is also to blame for the sand that accumulated on the springs beach, which the park tried to fix during the infamous dredging incident.

Swiftmud has disputed that and maintains that the park illegally dug sand in the middle of the night.

The water district also continues to argue that the city of Weeki Wachee broke state law by keeping the private company, Weeki Wachee Springs LLC, intact when it was donated to the city by the previous owner.

But the primary concern of Swiftmud - which has been a major sticking point in negotiations with Weeki Wachee - is to have the park obtain permission, or what's been referred to as an "underwater lease," from the state Department of Environmental Protection to use the springs and the river the attraction is located on.

"The litigation goes away if we resolve the issue of the underwater lease," said Michael Molligan, Swiftmud spokesman.

Last May, Swiftmud Chairman Tom Dabney and Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson met in Tampa - without lawyers - and went through the existing lease between the two parties line by line for hours.

Except for the underwater lease, Molligan said both sides agreed to other changes. At the time, the parties said they felt confident about coming to an agreement.

But then a few weeks after the Tampa meeting, Mason filed a request to start formal court mediation again. Swiftmud fired back a motion to continue arguments before a judge.

Most recently, the water district received a revised lease - written by former DEP employee Dale Adams, hired several months ago as an environmental consultant by the park - which Molligan said was different from what had been agreed to.

Weeki Wachee spokesman John Athanason said that no business would sign an agreement without consulting an attorney and other officials. And that's what Weeki Wachee did.

In the meantime, all the back and forth has caused Hernando Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink to lose patience - again - with both sides. During a Jan. 29 hearing, he ordered the parties to settle or pick a trial date.

To Goller, the case between the mermaid park and the water district is evidence of little guy getting picked on.

"The violator is Swiftmud, not the park," Goller said. "And it's been going on since they've owned it."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

[Last modified February 6, 2007, 22:03:18]


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