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Best of 2013: Urban Service Area: Little Bark, Big Bite


BRADENTON -- At Thursday's Land Use Meeting, commissioners were faced with citizens who were clearly skeptical of the Urban Service Area Amendment, which was on a fast track for approval. Members of the public strongly felt the amendment to the Manatee County Comprehensive Plan looked, smelled and tasted like a slippery slope.

For anyone who seeks a crash course in semantics, just regularly attend your local county commission meetings. Your are likely to come away without any understanding, but will surely take with you the art of word contortion.

There was no better example of this than Thursday's BOCC Land Use Meeting, where concerned citizens were not going to fall for what little explanation that was given to them about what harm could come from Item #10, the designated Urban Service Area (USA) amendment, if adopted.

All they seemed to be getting from the commission was: Just trust us.

What the commission wasn't picking up from them, was that there have been many times when citizens have trusted them to do what was in their best interest, but were let down when it came to the vote. Thursday, commissioners chose to take offense to the deeply concerned inquiry by many citizens, as if the public had no reason to question the commissioners' plea for confidence.

During the meeting, there was an interruption (a tropical storm/tornado warning) forcing some agenda items to be continued until the next available Land Use date, August 6. This sent many people, whose intent was to speak, home to attend to their affairs. But they, like those who remained through the quick closing to the rest of the meeting, had all come there to oppose two items on the agenda.

The items were: #11, Long Bar Pointe Amendment and #12, County Wide Text Amendment. Both items sought to amend the Comp Plan; both items dealt with changes to shore line property, and both items were within the USA Map that was being fast tracked.

After returning from lunch, where the order of business was to officially make a motion to continue what remained on the agenda until the August 6 date, commissioners decided to make exceptions. Those exceptions were items #10 (Urban Map Amendment) and #13 (Sarasota Manatee Master Campus Plan), and chose to vote on them.

What fired up the crowd was the attempt to quickly push through such a significant item -- directly related to the postponed items --  without many of the citizens who were told they could go home. It appeared disingenuous.

Against the disappointment gestures coming from the crowd, commissioners continued with the proceedings, for just those two items (#10 and #13). But Commissioner Robin DiSabatino would have none of it.

DiSabatino repeatedly suggested the commission was "putting the cart before the horse." Deputy County Attorney Sarah Schenk quickly warned DiSabatino to not focus on just one property included in the USA Map, and repeated the warning a few times. DiSabatino tried every way possible to clarify her point, and the rest of the members just played vacuous.

DiSabatino said, "The Amendment is for redevelopment, properties included here (land also referred to in agenda items #11 and #12) are in the USA Map, and have never been developed. They should be excluded."

DiSabatino stuck to her guns and then one speaker after another said they understood what DiSabatino was saying; and that they agreed.

Citizen were incensed with what seemed essentially an attempt to slide a key factor to passing item #12: County Wide Text Amendment, rewording the county's Comprehensive Plan.

In defense against the public's innuendos, Commissioner Betsy Benac said, "Trust me, no one here is planing to change any of the coastal policies in our Comprehensive Plan" She said that they were only trying to get rid of having to go through the costly DRI's.

Development of Regional Impact are a state legislated project that determine whether a development warrants extra-jurisdictional impacts. That became the strategy as to why many of the commissioners defended voting on the item.

When citizen comments were permitted, they came in like the tornado County Administrator Ed Hunzeker warned us all of before lunch.

Nick Baden said, "The seagrasses and mangroves we developed a plan to protect, it's not happening. You think you can limit this, we will turn into another Pinellas County, where there isn't any coast." 

Baden added, "I have friends that used to come down for a week to fish and would spend 10 grand enjoying themselves. They are the ones that make this economy work. It all depends on these grass beds. Now it all depends on the "Harris Act." 

Baden concluded saying, "They got rid of Joe McClash, and they are after you next (referring to DiSabatino). It doesn't matter whether you vote for this or not."

Barbara Hines from Manasota 88 said, "I know what Commissioner DiSabatino is saying.The federal law wants us to advocate high-hazard coastal areas."

All of the speakers spoke eloquently about how the commission should be mostly concerned with protecting the property and our general health, safety and welfare. They spoke about only hearing of the money and not what's good for the well-being of the county at large.

Then Commissioner Michael Gallen said, "After listening to the public comments, I also agree with commissioner DiSabatino." You could see the worry in the faces of the commission, as if suddenly their house of cards were falling.

The commission soon took a vote on item #10, Urban Service Area, and it was -- Approved, 5 to 2, DiSabatino and Gallen dissent. 

I later asked Commissioner Benac why she said "No one here is planning to change any of our coastal policies," when Item #11 and #12, regarded just that. She replied, "We haven't voted on that yet."
Again -- only at a Manatee County Commission meeting. 


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