PALMETTO – After nearly five hours of staff and applicant presentations, followed by seven hours of public comment, and another two hours of deliberations, Manatee County Commissioners finally concluded a marathon land use meeting at just after 2:00 a.m. this morning, voting 7-0 to deny a countywide text amendment on coastal development, while voting 4-3 to pass a controversial future use map amendment for the Long Bar Pointe project, after the removal of language regarding a proposed marina.
Despite assurances that ample seating would be provided, many attendees were left to stand as the meeting opened. The county decided not to utilize the bleacher seating at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto, where the meeting had been moved to, ostensibly to accommodate the predictably large crowd.
An estimated 600-800 citizens attended the meeting, though the crowd had dwindled to about 150 by the time the board deliberated on the two items – a countywide text amendment regarding coastal development, and a change to the Future Use Land Map for the Long Bar Pointe Project.
While a fair amount of support for the project turned out, the overwhelming majority of the citizens in attendance showed up to oppose both actions. One by one, everyone from local retirees to young children, to retired marine biologists and multiple past and present local officials (including two former county commissioners) expressed dissent that ranged from concern to contempt.
The majority of the comments centered around the environmental impact of the project, particularly the large amount of sea grass that would be damaged in dredging surrounding waters and the mangrove forests that would be damaged and destroyed. Many speakers pointed out that destroying those feeder fish grounds would have a ripple effect on the rest of the bay and Gulf. Other speakers spoke of traffic impacts and the change in character that such a large-scale waterfront project might incite.
Initially, the board seemed intent on separating the marina from the Future Use Map item, but staff quickly advised that only an applicant-driven amendment could properly address such a change. The question then became whether, assuming the board denied the countywide text amendment as advised by staff (which seemed likely from the outset) the map use change could be considered in compliance with the county's current comprehensive land use plan.
Staff was not able to give an entirely definitive answer, but Deputy County Attorney Sarah Schenck finally advised that the board seemed to be in a position where voting “all or nothing,” would be the best way to protect the county's future position considering that they were dealing with an applicant who was “known to sue,” pointing out that the developers, Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman, already have an open lawsuit with the county on the El Conquistador Parkway issue.
The question then came down to changing the future use map to mixed use. In rebuttal, Ed Vogler, attorney for the applicant, suggested, “don't pass the text amendment tonight,” but asked them to pass the map amendment in order to allow them to “site plan a mixed-use project."
Commissioners Whitmore, DiSabatino and Gallen on multiple occasions expressed concerns over approving a map amendment, as it could set up legal difficulties later, were the applicant to be seen as not able to access and develop their land in accordance to the future map use change they were given, because of conflicts with the comp plan.
Board chair Larry Bustle, however, was very eager to pass the map amendment and suggested that their commitment to go “big and bold” in the southwest corridor of the county might as well be abandoned if they didn't do so. But the possibility of a marina and all of the backlash against dredging continued to weigh on commissioners.
Even Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who was seen as a likely yea vote on one or both issues, began to wane. When it became apparent that support for a text amendment didn't exist, Commissioner DiSabatino motioned for a vote to deny the countywide text amendment, which passed unanimously.
The applicant was then prepared to amend their application to ease concerns over a marina that they claimed would not necessarily ever come to fruition. Eventually, the applicants agreed to amend the request to remove language regarding the marina. Staff explained that this would mean that the applicants could again request such use in a site plan for the development, but that without the countywide text amendment it would be very difficult to justify such an approval under the county's current comp plan.
Commissioner Chappie raised concerns about “engineering from the dais” and Commissioner DiSabatino then motioned to go against staff recommendations on transmitting the map use change and deny the applicant. She was seconded by Commissioner Gallen.
Commissioner Whitmore asked staff about the limitations the board might be able to put on the project within the future land use map, but was advised that such development limitations were limited to what's in the comp plan until the applicant came back with an actual site plan. Commissioner Benac, who previously served as a county planner, reiterated that the project would be coming back before the board once a site plan was proposed and because the text amendment was voted down, the existing coastal development standards would apply.
For Commsissioner Gallen it still came down to approving a change that staff analysis, even though it included a recommendation, did not convince him the change complied with the Comprehensive Plan requiring that the current Residential 9 designation was no longer in the public interest.
When the question was finally called to deny the change to mixed use, it failed 4-3 with Commissioners Bustle, Baugh, Benac and Whitmore opposed. Commissioner Benac then motioned to approve transmittal of the map amendement, which would change the comprehensive plan to the more intense use along Sarasota Bay to mixed use. The motion passed 4-3 with Commissioners Gallen, DiSabatino and Chappie opposed. As is, the map amendment will still allow for more intense use than the preceding approval, but the dredging of the waterway associated with a would-be marina is, at least for the time being, not authorized and without the text amendment would seem less likely to be capable of moving forward.
Stay tuned to TBT – more coverage to follow.
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