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Manatee County Looks to Gut Wetland Protections


MANATEE — Manatee County Government is bringing forward proposals that will significantly loosen requirements for building near local wetlands and watersheds. The text amendments would remove many of the county's local-level regulations from the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Codes, deferring rules for wetland buffers and other mitigation measures to the minimum that is required by the state.

During a well-attended task force planning meeting Thursday, a consultant hired by the county presented proposed changes to wetland protection measures that are required by Manatee County’s Comprehensive Plan. The meeting, which was held virtually through WebEx, saw roughly 70 attendees—an unknown number of which were staff of the county’s Development Services Department and Planning Division. 

The consultant, Daniel B. DeLisi of DeLisi, Inc. explained that it was his opinion that the county’s wetland regulations are "duplicative" of the state's requirements and "inflexible." 

DeLisi presented massive changes that would delete much of the county’s current comp plan language relating to wetland mitigation and buffer requirements, deferring all of the local regulations to the state’s minimum requirements. 

DeLisi’s business website, DeLisi Inc, contains a lengthy bio for Mr. DeLisi, including that he is a "certified land use planner, circuit civil mediator and lobbyist with over 20 years of experience in zoning, land development regulations and water/environmental policy." 

DeLisi’s bio also includes that he was appointed to the South Florida Water Management District board by former Florida governor Rick Scott in 2011. In 2013, DeLisi became SFWMD’s chief of staff. 

Several members of the public who attended the meeting asked questions of DeLisi and staff about the proposed changes. Manatee County resident Stacy Jessee asked why the more stringent wetland protections adopted by the county in 1989 were even up for proposed removal from the comp plan.

"Who made the determination within the county that we should lower these requirements, what was the impetus to change what we have currently?" Jessee asked. 

Nicole Knapp, Interim Director of Development Services and the county’s Impact Fee Administrator, responded to Jessee’s question stating, "We were given direction from the county board, they wanted us to take a look at duplicative language and this was one of the areas that they asked us to look at."

Earlier this year in March, TBT reported on a white paper that was delivered to the county’s development services department by members of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (BIA). Through our investigation, TBT uncovered evidence that the white paper was prepared by local land use attorney, Scott Rudacille. 

While the white paper outlined the BIA’s suggested changes to the county’s land development code, one specific sentence inserted into the LDC’s environmental chapter included language that would provide a new exemption to the county’s existing code requirements. 

Under Chapter 7, section 706.3, exemptions are listed and numbered 1-9.

"The requirements of this Section shall not apply to the following activities, which the Board hereby finds to comply with the requirements of Objective 3.3.1 of the Comprehensive Plan by nature and purpose,"  section 706.3 of the LDC reads before listing the exemptions. 

However, in the white paper prepared by Rudacille and delivered to the county by the BIA, an inserted exemption number 10 read, "Activities which are authorized pursuant to a State environmental resource permit, or which are exempt from State environmental resource permitting." 

It appears likely that while the white paper did not specifically address the comp plan or LDC code related to wetland protections, the insertion of this additional exemption—if adopted by the county—would require the county’s comp plan and LDC to defer its wetland regulations to the minimums as imposed by the state. 

Comp Plan Objective 3.3.1., "Wetland Protections," as cited in the LDC’s section 706.3, is one of several policies that would be dramatically changed by the comp plan text amendment presented by the consultant on Thursday. 

"When we say deference to the state, we are deferring to a very comprehensive and involved program," DeLisi told attendees at the task force planning meeting. 

State statutes require that each county and city develop and adopt its own Comp Plan and Land Development Code. The state also keeps a comp plan and regulations it imposes on future land development. The state’s regulations are a bare minimum requirement that all counties and cities must, at a minimum, implement through their comp plans and codes. 

Manatee County's current comp plan states that it protects all wetlands, even those that do not come under the purview of the state—with the exception of nonviable wetlands. 

As new developments break ground in Manatee County, builders are subject to the county’s comp plan and land code regulations. Where wetlands are involved, the county requires certain standards above those required by the state in order to mitigate impacts on wetlands and watersheds and to protect the county’s valuable water resources. However, contrary to DeLisi's statements on Thursday, a review of the county's comp plan shows that it does allow for some "flexibility" to the more stringent local requirements in certain development circumstances. 

Currently, objective 3.3.1. of the county’s comp plan states, "Preserve and protect existing viable wetland systems" in order to control flooding and pollutant runoffs, and to protect sensitive coastal areas, among other detailed objectives. 

In the proposed revisions to the comp plan, these objectives will now be achieved by requiring developers to, "Coordinate with state and federal wetland permitting agencies to ensure the protection and restoration of viable wetland systems." 

Policy, prohibits the "removal, alteration, or encroachment within wetlands except in cases where no other practical alternative exist…" This policy will also be deleted under the proposed changes. 

Policies and, are also entirely deleted from the comp plan. Provides the county with recourse in the event that a development plan contains a difference between the estimate of wetland areas shown on a survey and the actual wetlands on site, while details county requirements for wetland restoration and its mitigation policy to help offset wetland areas that are unavoidably impacted by development. 

The county’s drafted changes to the comp plan consist of nearly four pages worth of red strike-throughs, including local requirements for wetland buffers. Wetland buffers are those areas that surround a wetland and reduce adverse impacts on the wetland from adjacent development.

Policy, which drew the most attention from public attendees of Thursday’s meeting, outlines the county’s wetland buffer requirements. Buffers of 50 feet in width are required adjacent to all non-isolated wetlands and along flowing watercourses and 30 feet minimum buffers are required adjacent to all isolated/other wetlands, but also allow for approval of "variable buffers" depending on the circumstance but should not be less than SWFMD or state requirements.  

State and SWFMD minimum requirements for development adjacent to viable wetlands is a 25-foot average buffer with a 15-foot minimum requirement. 

At the same time the BIA white paper was leaked to TBT, our publication also received a copy of a staff-drafted work product that we were told contained significant changes to county-level wetland protections inspired by the BIA white paper's proposals. TBT received two separate staff drafts, one of the comp plan changes, and one of LDC revisions. Both showed that county staff was instructed to draft text amendments that would defer—and ultimately delete—various sections of comp plan policies and LDC to state minimum requirements. 

The proposed text amendment changes as presented by the consultant on Thursday are even more drastic than those that appeared in the staff draft TBT obtained in March. 

Click here to view the staff draft of comp plan changes as provided to our publication earlier this year. 

Some residents who attended the meeting pushed DeLisi as to how the county’s requirements could be considered "duplicative" of that state’s. Multiple pointed out that if the state’s requirements for buffers, for example, were lesser footage than the county’s, then these two things would not qualify as "duplicates." 

Resident Robert Cusick stated that it was his opinion the change would be significant as it would be going from 50ft wetland buffers for all non-isolated wetlands to a minimum of 15 feet by state requirement, or a 25-foot average. The county’s 30-foot requirement for all other wetlands would also be reduced to the 15 minimum/25 average rule. 

"My guess is," said Cusick, "the only benefit is to a developer and it wouldn’t benefit the resources here in the county at all." 

But the consultant disagreed. DeLisi said it would be impossible to state any potential benefits to developers because such potential benefits would depend on the specifics of the development project. 

DeLisi’s consulting website provides a list of "selected clients/current and former" which includes names of developers known to have past and current development interests in Manatee County, including, D.R. Horton, Pulte Homes, and Carlos Beruff’s Medallion Homes. 

"There really isn't any science to argue that there is greater protection with a 30-foot buffer rather than a 25-foot average buffer," DeLisi said at another point during the meeting discussion. 

Executive Director of Suncoast Waterkeepers, Dr. Abbey Tyrna also attended Thursday’s virtual meeting and disagreed that science does not support greater protection from increased buffer requirements for wetlands. 

Dr. Tyrna has a doctorate in geography where her research focused on measuring the effects of development on wetlands. She also earned a Master’s in Environmental Science, concentrating on wetland science and management, and a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies. Tyrna asked several questions following the consultant’s presentation, and during the discussion also pushed back on DeLisi’s assertion that larger buffer requirements do not equal more protection. 

TBT  reached Tyrna by phone following the meeting to get her thoughts on what she heard during the consultant’s presentation and meeting discussion. 

"The proposed changes," she told TBT, "will roll back protections for our water resources at a time when we need them the most."

"I don’t think people will want to move here if we continue to have blue-green algae in our drinking water and red tide at our shores," Tyrna added. 

Suncoast Waterkeeper has so far amassed around 700 signatures on a petition asking elected officials not to approve the rollbacks.

The proposed comp plan text amendment will next move to the county's planning commission for its approval on Aug. 10. The adoption hearing of the BOCC is anticipated to be held in early October.

Click here to view the comp plan text amendment as presented during Thursday's task force meeting. This document, "Exhibit A," displays the deletion of code with red strikethrough and the addition of new policy language with red underlines.

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.


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