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Outcome Seems Rigged in the Brawl Over Sprawl


Sometimes it seems as though we don't really need to send a reporter to a Manatee County land use meeting. Take one look at the agenda and you can usually figure out what is going to happen. Lately, east county has been the subject of much debate, though debate would seem to imply that there was an exchange of ideas, rather than one party imposing its will on the other.

East Manatee has historically been a pastoral hamlet of agricultural beauty, a place where people could stretch out on 5 acres or more, with residential ranchettes dotting the space between farming operations and the occasional larger ranch. Just a few decades back, when the interstate was still considered out in the boondocks, much of the space that lie beyond it remained unpaved. 

But more and more, developers are looking to the area for lower-cost, higher density homes they can more easily move in this economy. Understandably, the people who chose to make their lives out there aren't thrilled. Ideally, things like that are governed by the long-term comprehensive plan, which is the only thing a property owner has to go by when forecasting a potential neighborhood. But while the comp plan is a resident-driven decision on what our community will look like, the frequent changes to it are not.

When development is desired, investors simply apply to have land rezoned and far more often than not, they are successful. Last Thursday, the Manatee County Planning Commission recommended that the county commission rezone 80 acres north of Water Line Road in Northeast Manatee, from General Agricultural to Planned Development Residential. Nearby residents showed up to voice complaints about the planned 195-home development that will most likely be put there, which they say does not fit the character of their community – a place where cattle roam free, chickens cluck from acre to acre and many of the kids participate in 4H.

The folks at the dais are starting to become familiar faces. In recent months, several developments near the intersection of Water Line and Rye Road have come before the planning commission and BOCC for various requests, usually seeking to put even more homes into previously approved projects. The Water Line Road gang haven't been successful yet, but there they were trying to stop more sprawl in its early stages.

You see, once the wheels start turning, they're tough to stop. If staff gets on board, the planning commission will almost always recommend approval and an application with both staff and planning commission recommendation stands a very good chance of being rubber stamped by county commissioners. Rezoning to residential at much higher density is a crucial step, because when the plan for the development comes back before all of them, you usually get some handwringing and some line about, hey, it's their land and they have the right to build these houses on it, neglecting to mention that they didn't before the same people gave it to them.

Then when they come back and say that upon further inspection, they've realized they'll need a few more units and maybe have to cut out that common area and destroy another acre or so of wetlands, the boards will remind the residents, that we're only talking about X number of houses, the big project has already been approved, and again, there's nothing we can do about that.

The latest song and dance has to do with the way “the market is trending,” to explain why it's okay to build the houses closer together than the rest of the area. Bottom line is, you need to build very expensive houses to net the same kind of money on spacious developments as you'll see from ones with smaller homes built on top of each other. And if the price point is stuck below the pumped up number developers got used to during the boom, then the only way to make the same money at a lower price-per-unit is to squeeze more units onto the land.

That's basic math and as commissioners on both boards routinely remind discontented citizens, these are the economic realities of our time. But the same “small government conservatives” who so often bemoan Washington for picking winners and losers are doing just that when they change the rules anytime the playing field isn't tilted in the favor of developers. If the market can't support developing rural areas of East Manatee in the manner the community has intended, than perhaps that land should be left as is until such a time that the market will. Maybe if it wasn't so easy to change the rules, there would be more interest in developing our crumbling urban core?

There is only so much rural ag land available in the county. Heck, there's only so much land period. If we continually strive to develop as much of it as possible in whatever manner garners the widest profit margin at the time, we can't expect anything but a mess. But to hear some people tell it, such decisions are actually combating sprawl. Representing the applicant last Thursday, attorney Caleb Grimes actually suggested that approving higher density would do just that; otherwise we'd have 5 acre ranchettes as far as the eye can see. I'm not making that up. In fact, planning commission chair Richard Belford agreed.

The folks who live out on Water Line Road will have one more chance to appeal to the BOCC, when the application comes before county commissioner for final approval. They know the drill and I'm confident they'll show up to fight the good fight, but sometimes one has to wonder what for. When it comes to building houses, Manatee County clearly has little regard for what the people who live here want to see when they look out their window.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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