When Carlos Beruff gave assurances to the public that he would follow the county's rules while developing the land adjacent to Sarasota Bay and its fragile environment, citizens hoped to believe the developer, who also served on the body that regulates state environmental rules. However, in gaining his first approval from the BOCC last week, Beruff and partner Larry Lieberman instead requested special approvals that exempted them from the rules other developers have to follow. To almost no one's surprise, they got them.
The rules to protect the environment are established in the county's Comprehensive Plan as well as its Land Development Code. The state of Florida also has rules, and the Long Bar Pointe area is regulated by SWFMD, where Beruff served as chairman.
SWFMD issued an Environmental Resource Permit that failed to recognize wetlands, which have been protected even by the farmers for years. Now all of a sudden those same wetlands recognized by maps produced by SWFMD (as well as others) are slated to be destroyed in the development of Long Bar Pointe. While it is hard to say what role Beruff played in obtaining a permit to destroy these wetlands, there is certainly reason for cynicism.
While the public is fighting to protect what it gets notice on, there is a secret path of destruction that developers like Beruff can take. This secret approval is usually only known to developers and those who may see a small legal notice in a newspaper (subscribed to by less than 30 percent of the county) that provides no full disclosure of what destruction to the natural environment is to take place. Yet once the permit is issued, little can be done by the public to fight the developers secret approval, and their well-funded war chest can easily pay for more lawyers than any citizen army might hope to amass.
Beruff told citizens he would follow the rules for Longbar
photo by John Rehill
In years past, the county had a great environmental record. Some commissioners, like Carol Whitmore, refer to this as the “McClash Era,” while seeking to eviscerate these policies of protection. Whitmore was the swing vote that would have changed Long Bar Pointe to Mixed Use from Residential. Enough said.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has continuously chiseled away at Manatee County's environmental record, eliminating environmental departments, while firing any staff person who was not developer friendly. Remaining staff members know that if they do not look the other way, their job could be next. So good people who were once public protectors of the environment and used to tell developers and SWFMD no that is a wetland and you are not going to destroy that; same for the upland habitats have now been silenced by fear.
Manatee County Commissioners have the power to ensure that the development rules are followed. Yet some cower to the the developer for fear of losing their so called job. Take this approval; wetland buffers are required to be 50 feet, yet Beruff requested a 30-foot buffer and got a special approval. The commissioners had an option to not bend the rules galvanized in the Comprehensive Plan, which state a minimum of 50 feet for the buffer.
Another rule the commissioners waived was a 15-foot greenbelt next to a roadway. This special approval was given by a majority of the commission, who decided to just waive this rule at the last minute. A secret meeting was held with county staff and the developer during a break without the public. That is the way we work – not to follow the rules of the county, but create exemptions for those with political clout. Years ago, the developer would have been told follow the rule or we recommend denial. What has changed? Look at the campaign donations and you'll quickly find the answer to that question.
As for Beruff, it seems he is indeed perfectly willing to follow the rules, but only after they've been changed to his liking. I guess you don't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting a board elected if all you expect them to do is follow the rules that are in place.
There are other issues with this project as well. For example, county staff justified their recommendation for approval on a master plan, yet one has never been approved. Also the county allowed for a small piece of land not to be included in the approval next to Sarasota Bay. The county's code is pretty clear about no subdividing of land without county approval, yet an illegal subdivision was created.
The science supports the County's development rules, but when it comes to politics, the science is ignored for a political favor. In return, Beruff pours money into the campaigns of those he can count on for special treatment. He and Lieberman donated to six of the seven members on the board and Beruff was the chief benefactor for Commissioners Benac, Chappie and Bustle, while also funneling large sums of money into negative campaigning done by his associated political organizations – the ones that allow him to contribute at will, subverting the donation limits faced by average supporters.
The public outcry on the Long Bar Pointe development has been the largest in Manatee County's history. The victory appeared to have been won, but now we see the plan of destruction; death by a thousand cuts if you will. What's sad is that it doesn't have to be this way. If the commissioners do their job and demonstrate some political courage, the rules that are in place give them the ability to do what's best for Manatee County residents. Thanks to Michael Gallen for following the codes and most of all, their intent by voting against this approval. Incidentally he happens to be the one member of the board who hasn't received campaign support from either of the developers.
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