BRADENTON --How Will We Grow? A Conversation With The Community is a 196-page staff report, analyzing, what it says to be, alternative growth plans for Manatee County. The premise is: keep doing what we're doing and we'll keep getting what we've gotten -- and that would be, sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. The important question is: who is responsible for that?
In the Executive Summary to How Will We Grow?..., it mostly speaks to how we will squeeze more from the residents, than to what can be done to improve the quality of life for the residents of Manatee County. It only forecasts more costs to keep up with what are questionable market-driven projections, with little consideration to the reality of the mass inventory of houses and businesses that sit vacant in the county.
Just one block from the Manatee County administration building, where commissioners have recently approved more than a thousand new home sites to be built east of I-75, sits a completely vacant city block. Across the street from it, many more store fronts sit empty, and the next street over, half of them have been abandoned. Block after block of parking lots only grow weeds, and vacant homes sit in limbo on street after street, because the planning department and the commission they work for only seem concerned with rubber stamping sprawl, rather than addressing the pressing needs of the deteriorating urban core .
Now the administration is going to attempt to convince Manatee residents that if we build up instead of out -- they will come, as if some revelation has just come to their calling. Do they not remember the hundreds of residents, of which many were professionals with planning credentials, that have come before the commission, warning them that blight is the true cost of sprawl, and that Manatee County was becoming a textbook example of that principle?
Of course, commissioners will never admit their failings. Their egos have been pumped up by developers like Pat Neal and Carlos Beruff, who paint sprawl for a living and make sure commissioners' campaigns are well funded, so long as they remain friendly to their frequent applications for comprehensive plan amendments.
When called upon to protect the interests of those who actually pay their salaries, commissioners and the attorneys who work for them are quick to abandon residents' concerns if in any way their complaint scorns the persona of those they cater to.
The examples are many: the Willowbrook community, the Tallevast community, as well as the residents of Parrish, all of whom and others have had their complaints fall on deaf ears. When commissioners are forced to respond, county attorneys do what they do best: warn them of lawsuits, giving them a chance to say their hands are tied.
KB Homes, the builder who recklessly built the Willowbrook community, operated with a trail of complaints and lawsuits behind them, yet the only thing commissioners could say about KB was "what a reputable organization they were."
When a civic group invited Commissioner DiSabatino to Tallevast, where weapon manufacturing had contaminated the surrounding soil for decades, Commissioner Whitmore said, "They are only in it for the money" and told DiSabatino not to go. Then county attorney Bill Clague repeated the warning and added, "you will only be opening a can of worms."
With the ink barely dry on approvals to build thousands of homes in outland areas of the county, is the commission and its staff going to engineer a high density, up rather than out, better living environment for us all? If the Administration's Planning Department and all of its professionals have been working on this nearly 200-page report for over a year, as it claims, why has every development that has gone before them during that period been approved without any contest?
The big question is, who is going to pay for all of the infrastructure building and repair that will usher in this up not out that their high density plan is built on? The answer is obvious: those who can least afford it, like the residents of Willowbrook.
When I asked County Administrator Ed Hunzeker about who was exempt from the "Stormwater Fee" that the county is heavily relying on to cover much of the infrastructure cost, he said, "We haven't figured that out yet." I asked if agriculture property would be included among those required to pay. He paused then answered, "I am not sure."
I then asked Hunzeker if titling the expense as a fee instead of a tax, was so to keep the 501's and other tax exempts in the loop of payees? He said, "We haven't figured any of that out yet. We are now just looking at all of our options."
I asked him if he knew that many counties and states have challenged stormwater fees, with the courts ruling the fees unconstitutional, for being a hidden tax? He answered, "Yes I do, but stormwater fees are everywhere in this state and others around the U.S."
In Manatee County, 56 percent of the property is zoned agriculture. Agriculture is largely responsible for the nutrient run-off that contributes to the river, estuary and shoreline struggles stormwater programs are designed to address, and to exempt them would place additional expense on homeowners and businesses to subsidize their true costs.
I asked Hunzeker about properties that don't contribute to storm water run-off, but actually help to relieve the amount through retention. He said, "Everybody contributes to stormwater."
Jeff Burton, Director of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in the City of Palmetto, has been incorporating street bricks, at parks and surrounding areas, that permeate surface water back into the ground or into retention ponds. In doing so, no permit is required from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD).
I asked Hunzeker if using those bricks or similar material would exempt a land owner from having to pay the fees? He replied, "I don't know, but that's a good question. We are going to have to go over all of these options before we figure this out."
There is no doubt that the infrastructure throughout the county is in need of repair and in some cases, rebuilding. Much of the county's time and revenue has gone to meeting the needs of urban development, of which impact fees, designed to compensate for those burdens, were inadequate at best. Now the county is forced to address those realities.
The 190-page Report: How Will We Grow, offers three options to remedy the infrastructure challenges our future will soon be faced with. None of them suggest an alternative paradigm contrary to the mistakes of the past, only a different method by which we keep the pedal to the metal on growth.
Commissioners and planners need to conclude, the market is how we make our living, not how we should design our lives. If we continue to ignore the needs of those already living here to lure the mega-growth that drives Wall Street, not our own citizens' quality of life, we will further undermine life in Manatee County. Going up, not out, will not put us in a better place.
I can only assume, the reason the three options in the report are designed around the quantity of life and not the quality, is because doing so is beyond the talents or the will of the current administration.
I asked Hunzeker if he thought the residents of Manatee County were here for a Savannah-style way of life or if they were looking for one that more resembled Atlanta? He said, "I don't know, they'll have to decide that."
Yes, I suppose they will.