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Long Bar Pointe Project Sent Back to Planning Commission

After six hours of back and forth during the Manatee County Commission land use meeting on Thursday, the board voted to send developer Carlos Beruff's Aqua by the Bay application back to the planning commission, which had recommended approval, though with direction from staff that had misinterpreted the application's intent regarding the number of high-rise structures to be built.

The staff report for the application refers to two multi-story buildings with heights greater than 35 feet, for multi-family residences; one building 75 feet tall and five stories, the other building 145 feet tall and thirteen stories. However, Ed Vogler, attorney for Beruff, eventually explained when questioned that those were were actually two "types" of buildings they wanted to get approved, saying that the number was still to be determined. However, conceptual designs submitted by the developer to Swiftmud (our regional water management district), reveal 24 such buildings are planned, drastically altering the vistas on the last major portion of undeveloped Sarasota Bay frontage in Manatee County.

Deputy County Attorney Sarah Schenk, who specializes in land use, advised the commissioners that the misunderstanding could open the door for legal challenges from either side, regardless of the decision because the proceedings were not properly advertised to the public. TBT publisher and former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, who is part of a group of citizens and environmental groups opposing the project, said that the bungle could only further erode public trust.
"You have a situation in which the county staff and the applicants have been working on this for a long time with a lot of back and forth between them," said McClash, "yet no one ever thought to ask, Exactly how many of these tall structures are we talking about?"
McClash noted that plans for another development nearby, known as Peninsula Bay, were made much more transparent during the process, allowing staff and then commissioners to give approval to a project that not only respected county rules but left little up to guesswork in terms of what would ultimately be built.
"I think Peninsula Bay is a good example of how the process should work on something with this much potential impact," said McClash. "In my opinion, I think that should provide a minimum standard that the staff and the board should hold developers to."
McClash also noted that the applicants were provided with an advance copy of the staff report in order to provide comment, something that isn't available to the public.
"They had every opportunity to say, Hey, wait a minute, this isn't right. Let's get this fixed before the meeting," said McClash. "Obviously, having it read as two large high-rises, rather than 24, would have been perceived as having been to their advantage."

More than 150 citizens flooded the chambers on Thursday, with over 100 more in two overflow rooms, while the lobby also filled up with citizens who watched on monitors and others held up signs as cars passed outside. With 80 opponents seeking to give public comment, it had assured that there would be at least one continuance before a vote.
The Aqua by the Bay development is the latest iteration of Beruff's controversial Long Bar Pointe project. The politically-powerful developer, who lost a bid against Senator Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican primary, had originally wanted to include a hotel, convention center and marina but had been thwarted by large-scale opposition and county rules on coastal development, later failing in his bid to sue the county over the denial. Opponents worry that he may still be seeking a similar project by getting the necessary components piece-meal, rather than all at once.
During their presentation Thursday, his team described a nearly as ambitious project that would include a large water body to be dredged behind a mangrove shoreline and include a "crystal lagoon" elsewhere on the property, as a totally-unique development that would add tremendous value to the community. They argued that projects this dynamic are one-of-a-kind by nature and stretch the determination of what is considered "compatible."

At the mention of how unique the project would be, the packed chambers–which had to be warned several times that speaking aloud was prohibited at a quasi-judicial hearing–could be heard in near unison saying, "That's why we don't want it!"
The height and number of high rises may have been the question that got the most attention during the meeting, but it is only one of many reasons the project should be rejected as currently proposed. Beruff also wants to dredge a large body of deep water behind the mangrove shoreline, which would provide access from the coastal property of homeowners to the waters of the bay. His team acknowledged during questions from commissioners that the homeowners on the water would be able to build docks.
This feature, which violates the county's rule on having a 50-foot wetland buffer, would add considerable value to the development but at significant environmental cost. Mangroves that do not abut the mainland are not as secure and likely to survive. The water body itself would be very different from something like a retention pond that is totally housed on the mainland. Fisherman are concerned that it would invite predator fish into a key marine ecosystem in which many of the most crucial feeder fish currently reside, creating a ripple effect throughout the food chain that will be felt all the way out to the gulf. It has also not been studied as to whether the proposed layout would allow for enough flow in this man-made tidal pool or whether overly sedentary water would wind up fouling the bay.
Thursday's meeting can only be summed up as an embarrassment for the county planning department, whose failure to provide a recommendation based on accurate information will prove costly to all parties. It's notable that despite the gravity of the application, not to mention the public opposition, one of the department's least experienced planners was assigned to the project. In contrast, the aforementioned Peninsula Bay project, was handled by Margaret Tusing, the most knowledgeable and consistent planner in the department. Given the fact that the staff report read as more of a barely recommended project when there were thought to only be two high-rises involved, it would stand to reason that both staff and the planning commission would reverse their approvals given Thursday's revelations. Then again, we're talking about Carlos Beruff.
It's difficult to overstate Beruff's sway with all parties involved. Indeed, it is tough to think of another political force in Manatee County that is more powerful than the Cuban-American developer who has built an enormous fortune since moving here from Miami and been both financially generous and politically vindictive to local office holders, depending on where they've fallen on his projects. On Thursday, Beruff told the board that he would personally appreciate them getting the matter fast-tracked and it was hard to imagine there wasn't plenty for them to read between the lines.
No date has yet been scheduled for the planning commission to revisit the issue. Click here to let commissioners know what you think about the development.



Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His Sunday opinion column deals with issues of local concern. He is the author of the novel, A Long Road Home, and the short story collection, Casting Shadows, which can be ordered in paperback here, or in the Amazon Kindle store here.


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