Manatee County officials are asking: how will we grow? But is that really a question, or a ploy to persuade residents that they actually have influence over decisions being made about the future of Manatee County's growth and development?
“How Will We Grow is an opportunity for people to get involved in growth planning that infrastructure, services and development will follow for the next thirty years,” says John Osborne, Manatee County Planning and Zoning Official, adding, “That’s why we're trying to get as much input from as many different audiences as we can.”
Well that is of course, as long as the involvement stays within the narrow guidelines Osborne orates in his How Will We Grow (HWWG) presentations. In his spiel, he only exhibits three alternatives.
Alternative 1: The “stay the course” option, makes minor changes to Manatee County’s current Comprehensive Plan and would continue the suburban growth trend towards low-densities and low-rise development patterns in most areas.
Alternative 2: The Southwest County focus encourages additional population and development in the southwest area of the county. This would focus redevelopment and increased densities and potentially taller buildings (greater than 35' in areas) along the U.S. 41 corridor and other areas west of Interstate 75 where infrastructure and services already exist.
Alternative 3: The “activity center” focus encourages denser and more concentrated growth within four designated areas: Port Manatee area, Parrish, Lakewood Ranch, and the U.S. 41 corridor area of Southwest Manatee County. Like Alternative 2, it would allow increased densities and potentially taller buildings (greater than 35' in some areas) in these activity centers.
It is as if the only option available for a better future is to build our way out of our current economic woes. Manatee County Commissioners have already seen how poorly this approach works, yet they continue to approve an onslaught of urban sprawl at near-record pace.
I find that many Manatee County citizens believe their elected officials not only lack the insight to guide the county into a sustainable future, but lack the courage and knowledge to do effectively.
It stands to reason that higher utility and property taxes, mid-town and downtown blight, outdated infrastructure and higher crime are consequences of failed policies.
Over 10,000 homes and storefronts sit vacant throughout Manatee County, simmering in blight, while the commission spends tens of millions of dollars on roads to nowhere and bridges to development not yet built.
Commissioners claim impact fees cover the cost of introducing new developments. But public officials admit, they don't have a clue to how much of the actual impact cost is covered by the impact fees collected from developers; and all of those that I asked, said, "it's not enough."
30 years is a long time. Climate change studies predict that the sea will ultimately rise 9 to 10 inches, which could bring the shoreline in as much as a mile in some places and double the size of our flood zones.
Bridges 60 years old, and sewers that are even older and far past their expected service, have their needed repairs or maintenance put on the back burner - vital pieces of our community that are harder to notice when they're falling apart. In nearly every case where cities have been forced to file for bankruptcy, the cost of failing infrastructure was the straw (or perhaps cinder block) that broke the camel's back.
In Manatee County, water supply is already heavily strained, due to over-pumping, saltwater intrusion and over-development, but how the county might deal with any of these challenges doesn't appear anywhere in the HWWG literature.
The HWWG proposed alternatives are sorely lacking as a road map to take us deep into the 21st century.
Compared To What?
The very first question officials should have been asked was, What do you want Manatee County to look like: Savannah or Atlanta?
Two years ago, when the HWWG report first appeared before the BOCC, I asked County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, "Do you think the people of this town want a Savannah, or an Atlanta? His answer: "I guess the people will decide."
I don't see where the public had any role in the three alternatives, other than previews at a couple of elite clubs and a HOA or two.
The road map to creating a city like Savannah is very different than the one for an Atlanta, and it would certainly require a different Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code (LDC); which is what much of the to-do with the HWWG is all about.
County officials are attempting to hand an LDC to developers that has fewer environmental regulations, higher density and taller buildings, all masqueraded as a simple "streamlining process." To the developers, however, it may be something of a permanent rubber-stamp.
Manatee County's history is one rich with environmental concerns for balanced growth. The beaches, rivers and estuary had managed to dodge much of the targeted development that paved the landscape for most Florida communities.
Savannah shares much of the same history, and is managing to hold on to its charm and quality of life in a way that most growth-obsessed communities can only dream of.
A beautiful river town, Savannah has much in common with Bradenton. Chatham County GA, where Savanna is located, is about 20 percent smaller in population than Manatee, but with a budget half the size. Yet they have managed to preserve an impressive amount of land, culture and history making it one of the most highly-sought communities to relocate to or vacation.
There is no evidence to suggest that a higher population provides more jobs per capita, reduces crime, improves the quality of services, reduces debt, improves school performance or otherwise improves the quality of life. To the contrary, there are volumes of data which suggest just the opposite; the larger the city, the higher the unemployment, debt and crime. Atlanta is an example of that and that city's aggressive embrace of any growth at any cost should be a cautionary tale.
If we succeed at building all of the planned development which has already been approved under the current codes, Manatee County will more than double its population.
How Will We Grow? Why not as a river town that raises all boats and the quality of life for all of its residents.
I suggest Manatee County take a pause from piling any more of the actual impact cost on to the backs of the current residents until the real cost is clear – and bore at the expense of the developer.
During that period, commissioners could focus on the 10,000 plus homes and business properties that aren't generating any property tax revenue (the county's primary revenue source), rehab as many properties as possible -- creating hundreds of jobs -- and get them back on the tax roll so surrounding property values quit plummeting.
Sustainability will be the measure by which all 21st century communities will set their goals. Manatee County is unique in that it is perhaps one of the last Florida communities still in a position to control its fate. We could become the finest place to live in Florida, or we could fall to the fate of over-development and mismanagement that has taken so many counties into peril.
Will it be, Savannah or Atlanta? Ed Hunzeker wants to know. Make sure you tell him and the commissioners what you think.
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