Seeing some 700 citizens show up to a county commission meeting to oppose a major revision to coastal development was nothing short of inspiring, even if the manner in which the meeting was managed left much to be desired. Opponents of the proposed expansion of Longbar Pointe can take solace in the fact that the most egregious elements were defeated – for now. Let's take a look at what exactly happened and what it all means.
First, commissioners wisely rejected a proposed countywide text amendment that would have completely changed the standards by which we develop coastal land. That proposal, which unsurprisingly came to fruition at the same time as the Urban Services Area designation and the originally scheduled vote for the Long Bar Pointe Future Use Map, looked doomed from the time county staff recommended denying it.
However, had the future use map amendment passed, there still would have been a crack left open through which a giant lawsuit could have passed. Were the applicants, Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman, given a future use map that mentioned the marina, they could have plausibly argued that a denial of a site plan which included one was not consistent with previous decisions. Without the future use map amendment, and especially without the text amendment, the current comp plan will make an approval for a marina difficult to win in any future site plan.
That being said, it was remarkable how much dedication it took to deliver the result – which still went against popular will and possibly our current comp plan and state guidelines regarding the criteria for increasing both density and intensity in coastal areas. In short, it took well over a hundred citizens delivering surprisingly well-articulated dissents to still deliver a 4-3 vote (Gallen, DiSabatino and Chappie dissenting) in favor of the map amendment, that although amended to discard the marina, still allows for more aggressive development than had been approved previously.
To many commissioners, the idea of the public weighing in seemed little more than a block that needed to be checked. In fact, commission chair Larry Bustle at several instances hemmed and hawed about the volume of speakers who had signed up, offering dreary calculations of how long the meeting would be dragged out, while urging them to use less than their alloted time..
Now, I'm certainly not suggesting that it's easy to administer the logistics of such a large meeting, but some of the challenges were self-inflicted. The county had already heard complaints when it was announced that they'd elected to set up 430 seats, rather than employing the convention center's bleachers, and while they added 100 seats to accommodate the large crowd that had already ammassed prior to the doors opening, more than 100 citizens were still left standing – for what turned out to be a nearly 13-hour affair.
Then, rather than holding commissioner questions for staff until deliberations, hours were spent hashing out gray areas during the staff presentation, nearly all of which were revisited in deliberations anyway. The applicant gave a presentation that was about twice as long as usual (somewhere around and hour), meaning it was after 5 p.m. by the time public comment finally began.
Chairman Bustle repeatedly asked if members of the public would try to hurry their comments to less than the alloted three minutes and even give up their time if they just wanted to agree with someone else – again, like it was checking a block, rather than including the voice of the board's constituents on one of the most important land use issues the BOCC has ever decided.
That's a shame, because in addition to the impressive dedication of hundreds of engaged citizens who turned out, the public comment portion also revealed a unique and impressive depth of knowledge that resides in Manatee County – particularly regarding marine issues. By the time the meeting adjourned shortly after 2 a.m., there were still enough citizens left that they would have overflowed the normal commission chambers.
Chairman Bustle several times admonished the rest of the board for lacking the fortitude to go “big and bold.” But in my estimation, big and bold would have been a county board that is genuinely responsive to the community it is elected to represent. Then again, that presumes that electoral politics actually work the way they're supposed to. In reality, the applicants are generous sponsors of the very seats most of the commissioners sit in, and their financial support is perhaps even more important than the votes they stood to lose in last night's meeting.
Also worth noting is that the most influential organization when it comes to our area's coastal resources – the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program – has been deafeningly silent on the issue. SBEP Executive Director Mark Alderson wasn't one of the 150 or so citizens who signed up to give comment last night.
Then again, aside from being a land developer and generous supporter of development-friendly politicians, Mr. Beruff also sits on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), from which SBEP draws the bulk of its funding. Could it be that a negative assessment of the project might have been politically foolish – no different than voting against a project floated by the guy who bought your seat?
These days, a government of the people for the people, even on a local level, would be big and bold by most people's standards. Trying to force through another unwanted development at the expense of both our natural resources and community character ... that's old hat. When it takes this many people enduring that much guff to get a lukewarm result, you get the feeling that they'll be back again soon, even if the sea grass seems safe for now.
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