CORTEZ – Carlos Beruff arrived at Fishermen's Hall in the Cortez Fishing Village just shortly after his entourage. The room was growing full of local residents and other concerned citizens who had traveled to the historic hall to hear Beruff's proposal to build a small town – complete with a hotel, marina and convention center – all on the shore of a channel in the eco-sensitive Sarasota Bay. Despite some creative assurances by the politically-powerful developer, most attendees remained unimpressed with the proposal.
The 55 year old, Miami-born developer says he had a vision to create a village, one that had a 5-star hotel, surrounded by luxury homes with docks from which to watch the sunset.
photo by John Rehill
It probably wouldn't be difficult to find a community that just shivered with joy to hear of such a place, where seagrass is removed, and not missed, and where mangroves are seen as needless trees that stop many of the water lovers from beaching their boats to picnic. However, Mr. Beruff was now in Cortez – a place where quality of life is not measured in mere dollars and cents and where respect for the waters that have sustained generations of residents trumps all.
The meeting was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. and when that rolled around, the attendees had far exceeded the number of chairs. From the beginning, Beruff made it clear that to pursue his vision, he is merely exercising his rights within the boundaries of the law – though without mention of his considerable efforts to have those laws changed in his favor.
From a proposed comp plan "text amendment" regarding coastal development, to expanding the newly-approved "Urban Service Area" and its relaxed development requirements to include the Longbar Pointe project, to substantial modifications of the project's current approval (click here to view PDF), Beruff and his partner Larry Lieberman have sought more than a little flexibility to those rules from a county commission that the duo has been very generous to in terms of campaign contributions and PAC funding.
The first question to Beruff was an inquiry into why he chose Long Bar Pointe as the place to build the proposed development. And as if he were in his own humble abode, Beruff asked for permission for the five minutes it would take to cascade through the series of events that led to his decision.
That's when the first clue was revealed that Beruff came to the meeting with little more than an entourage and a briefcase full of contradictions.
Almost within the same sentence, Beruff went from announcing his once in a lifetime vision, to stating, "I probably have less imagination than anyone in this room."
Beruff's cajoling gesture fell flat, and even he knew it was time to move on to more substantial issues.
The theme that Beruff and his attorney Ed Vogler kept bouncing off of the walls of the hall was "net public benefit." The phrase that sounds okay, but what does it mean?
If 100 acres of wetlands have been deemed expendable, the agreed amount of replacement wetlands to compensate that loss is mitigated through a "Mitigation Bank." The value of that wetland is measured by the quality of the wetland, which in Florida, is determined by its UMAM (Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method) score.
If it is determined that 100 acres of wetland is to be replaced at a three to one ratio, the state or applicant must present 300 acres to be available in the region's mitigation bank.
But the trouble with this phony exchange is two fold.
1. Beruff says, "retention ponds are almost wetlands." How scary or comical (choose your words) is that? Beruff now sits as chairman of SWFWMD (Southwest Florida Water Management District), so one would think an acceptable level of scientific knowledge is required for the job.
Perhaps Beruff and his eco-scientist, along with the county officials that sit quietly when he makes such claims, can shout it from the rooftops, so the rest of the real-world scientific community can hear just how knowledgeable they actually are.
2. The exchange of wetlands being mitigated, need not be replaced in the county of the loss. That's like borrowing money and promising to give it back to someone else, somewhere at some other time. Now there's a comfort zone.
Beruff said he would only be removing 225 acres of mangroves and was only going to dredge down five feet for his 2,100 ft. long, 60 ft. wide channel. At that depth, even flat, glass-bottom boats are at risk.
That would be fine if he decided to follow some of the many suggestions. One was that he and his project partner, Larry Lieberman, donate the property for something like a Robinson Preserve.
But instead, Beruff says that the now scaled-down vision consists of 2,700 resident dwellings, 15,000 square feet of retail space, a 250-room hotel and a convention hall; and let's not forget the pond, and a marina that will house 80 boats.
Beruff was asked what the maximum height of structures in the project were going to be, his answer: five stories. That's kind of hard to believe. Maybe Beruff will sign a agreement to not sue the county if any change orders or permit modifications are refused. Now that would be a sign of good faith.
Beruff was also asked about building in a flood-prone zone, followed-up by a comment on the cost to everyone else, should something like a hurricane occur.
Beruff answered, "I believe those who live in high-risk areas should have to pay premiums that reflect that risk … If this wasn't insured, I couldn't build it."
What Beruff didn't address is that all insurance underwriters will use the revenue from all of their policies to pay off all of their claims, and then raise rates for all of their customers, even before they reduce their profits. In this way, the true cost of high-risk development is subsidized by everyone, even those who will never catch a sunset off one of Longbar's docks.
When enormous losses are the reason an insurance company goes out of business, another company may come in to pick up the customers. But when that happens, the premiums are not sharply escalated, but spread out among many policy holders. We all pay higher premiums when huge payouts occur; it doesn't matter who it happened to.
Beruff was also asked what his backup plan was, in case he is turned away by the BOCC for the permits on August 6 and everything collapses.
Beruff said he didn't have another plan and in the case of everything falling down, said, "I always keep a couple of back doors open and a window too."
Beruff is right about that. With over 40 different entities, there is always someplace else to let things fall. When his company built homes using contaminated Chinese drywall, customers expected him to spring for repairs. But Beruff threatened to declare bankruptcy – despite boasting $80 million in annual sales. Whether that was a "back door" or a "window," I'm not sure.
Thursday night in Cortez, Judy Bud said it best. She told Beruff he didn't understand what was going on in Cortez. Bud said, "This place and the people in it are feeding the community. This is not fair."
And Plum Taylor said, "My father was the first boat builder in Cortez. My daughter fished to put herself through college, and we have to deal with people like you?"
Clearly Beruff doesn't get it. He says he didn't know there were Indian mounds on the property in question, nor what to do about it, and that he has attempted to change all of the numbers to suit the criticism.
As Mary Green, the "Queen of Cortez," said, "I can tell you where to put your project." She didn't specify the location, but I doubt there would be any sunshine ... or sunsets for that matter.
What you can you do?
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