To say that developers have a lot of influence over the Manatee County Commission would be a gross understatement. To say that Carlos Beruff is the most politically-influential developer in Manatee County would be a tough claim to argue against.
But when Beruff's latest project comes before the Manatee County Commission on Tuesday, it will be up against organized resistance, the scope of which we have rarely seen. The board should tread lightly.
Any special interest working in concert with a government body can usually go up against a community and come out largely unscathed. Just ask residents in rural east Manatee County who have been organizing en masse time and again to try and stave off increased density and cookie cutter sub-divisions in one of the county's last rural hamlets.
They can usually fend off even a very well-organized environmental group too. Just ask ManaSota88, who has been fighting the good fight against phosphate mining interests for more than three decades, only to see special interest money trump common sense policy time and again (ManaSota 88 is also fighting this issue).
But throw in the charter fishing industry, local boating and fishing enthusiasts and the salty, old-school crowd out in the Cortez Fishing Village and you've got a hornet's nest, and one that's hard to ignore, especially if you count on votes to keep your job.
In fact, so many of those in opposition are expected to show up at Tuesday's meeting that the county had to relocate it to the convention center. Such mobilization should not be surprising. There's a lot at stake.
At a June 6 land use meeting, the board designated a larger area that the project resides within as an Urban Service Area (5-2 vote with Commissioners Gallen and DiSabatino dissenting). The USA designation exempts the development from certain state oversight that would consider its regional impact. The board was originally (and perhaps tellingly) scheduled to also vote on a countywide text amendment and a Mixed Use map amendment for Long Bar Pointe later on in the same meeting, only a tropical storm forced them to adjourn early, which is why those items were continued until this Tuesday's meeting.
The USA designation already reduces development requirements. The text amendment would be a dangerous, countywide change to development in fragile coastal ecosystems and has justifiably earned a negative recommendation from staff and the County Attorney. But the map amendment to mixed use including a marina could be the real problem, were the board to approve it on Tuesday.
The county has already given “conceptual approval” to the project (check out the email our Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker sent to the applicant), and if the future use map is changed to allow for the marina, the county might be opening itself up to litigation. Let's not forget that the applicant is already suing the county over El Conquistador Parkway.
The developers (Beruff and partner Larry Lieberman) have stated that their consultants have assured them that the project will be a net positive environmentally, but one has to question the consistently pro-development findings of such reports, when considering that those producing them are hired by the developer and that one's success is somewhat tied to other's.
Also, the county staff's own report fails to note several key items - including the fact that manatees use the area (the report does not note any known endangered, threatened or special concern species) or that sea grass would be destroyed in dredging the canal.
Beruff and Lieberman have been going out of their way to claim that they are playing by the rules and simply want to develop an environmentally-responsible project on their land. This simply isn't accurate. In actuality, they are asking for the rules to be changed in their favor, so that their land can become more valuable than it currently is, at the expense of both the local environment and the unique way of life that this particular portion of it helps to enable.
A county's comprehensive plan is an important document that is the product of tremendous foresight and significant public input. It is the only thing for regular citizens to count on in terms of having a concrete idea of what an area could look like in the future before they decide to invest what is often the bulk of their financial resources into making a home there. Changes to such a document should be taken very seriously and only come to fruition as the product of honest and open debate with similar public input and agreement. I think it's quite obvious such is not the case in this instance.
Let the developers build the previously-approved project on their land – the one that doesn't require changing the rules that everyone else has to play by. If the current market doesn't support that project, so be it. The southwest corner of Manatee's coastline is the last significant piece of undeveloped waterfront in the county. Therefore, it is essential that it is done right. If that can't be accomplished without the sacrifice of natural resources this project seems to require, than perhaps it should be shelved until more optimal market conditions arise.
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