Manatee County Commissioners approved a settlement this week, regarding an applicant's desire to increase density on a project that lies in both a Coastal High Hazard Area and Hurricane Evacuation Zones 1 and 2. The compliance agreement is not only at odds with Manatee County's Comp Plan, but also contradicts previous objections from the Department of Community Affairs and flaunts the "Conclusions of Law" in a more recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge. We feel that this is not only a bad decision for Manatee residents, but also sets a dangerous precedent.
Manatee County Commissioners approved a settlement this week, regarding an applicant's desire to increase density on a project that lies in both a Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA) and Hurricane Evacuation Zones 1 and 2. The compliance agreement is not only at odds with Manatee County's Comp Plan, but also contradicts previous objections from the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and flaunts the "Conclusions of Law" in a more recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
In the "Conclusions of Law" reached by the ALJ, it was recommended that the county's action in passing the ordinance which approved the application was not legal. That decision required the ALJ to determine that reasonable persons could not differ on whether the decision was debatable and led to the county rescinding the ordinance. Ordinarily, that ruling would have been sent to DCA, who in 1997 objected to the adoption of a comprehensive plan amendment because the density was being increased in the CHHA.
A new growth management law passed in 2011 redirected such rulings to the Governor and his cabinet, who held the case in abeyance after deciding that since Manatee County rescinded the ordinance, the matter should be considered moot. In short, having already rescinded the ordinance, no further action was necessary on the county's part.
The applicant did file suit to challenge the rescinding of the ordinance; however, we believe it is quite clear that the county has broad powers to rescind any ordinance it chooses – and especially when the decision is grounded in the findings of such authorities. This week's settlement sets a dangerous precedent that could inspire others to challenge the powers of the county to rescind an ordinance, leading to increased costs to taxpayers.
In addition to the legal basis for denying the settlement, we believe that the board failed to act in the best interest of the citizens of Manatee County. The Statewide Regional Hurricane Evacuation Study/Storm Tide Atlas places the entire site in Hurricane Evacuation Zone A. Any development, let alone development that nearly doubles the current Res-1 zoning, could impact the safe evacuation of existing Manatee County residents by increasing traffic volume in the zone.
Allowing 38 homes on a piece of land zoned for 20, might not seem like the end of the world. But such development will likely mean putting 70-plus cars into that flood and evac zone instead of 40, and 120 or so people instead of 60, all while increasing the density of yet another pastoral hamlet in Manatee County. It should also be noted that the recent FEMA flood insurance increases that many Floridians are complaining about, are largely owed to just this sort of high-risk land development.
In recent years, it has become commonplace for commissioners, applicants and staff to treat the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan as little more than a general guideline, though that is not the intent of such a tool. Comp plans incorporate greater public input than any other development review process and represent a framework depicting the community's collective vision for its future. Changes to this framework should be given the most careful consideration and the bar set high with the onus on the applicant to convincingly demonstrate that the amendment is an overwhelmingly positive change for the community.
We think it is clear that the applicant has failed to demonstrate a compelling justification for increasing development in such an area, and that the county's settlement remains at odds with not only the letter of the comp plan, but its intent. The basis for the previous findings of the DCA and ALJ would also continue to apply to the terms of the settlement. The right decision would have been to do nothing and stand by what had been the current designation for the land. If the developer did not have a market to develop the land at its intended Res-1 designation, it is not the job of the commission to sacrifice the best interests of our residents in order to change that.
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