Manatee County Commission renews wetlands debate

skennedy@bradenton.comMay 7, 2013 

0716 N neal 5 WGJ

A great egret in the wetland area bordering Edenmore and Lismore in The Country Club at Lakewood Ranch. Neal Communities just completed the $250,000 restoration of the 11 acres of wetlands to restore it to its more natural state, creating natural habitat for plants, trees and wildlife. GRANT JEFFERIES/gjefferies@bradenton.com.

GRANT JEFFERIES — gjefferies@bradenton.com Buy Photo

MANATEE -- The Manatee County Commission will consider overhauling its wetlands rules Tuesday in updating the Land Development Code.

Proposed revisions were criticized last month by an environmentalist, who claimed they would "gut wetland protection."

One of the county's largest home builders defended the new definitions as practical. Home builder Pat Neal, who heads Neal Communities, said residential developers do not disturb wetlands on purpose because it is so expensive to do so.

"This fight is primarily over what I'll call 'degraded system and systems' under one-half acre," he said.

It's nearly impossible to maintain such a wetland, and it typically costs $60,000 to $80,000 to mitigate or rebuild the environment, which Neal said ups the price of a typical home by thousands of dollars.

"The question the board has to decide is whether these small wetlands are worth $2,000 to 3,000 per home," he said.

The commission will review a draft ordinance to redefine wetlands definitions and amend the wetlands protection code, which determines how impacts should be mitigated in wetlands disturbed by development.

Enforcement would also be updated by the new ordinance.

New language about isolated wetlands less than 0.5 acres in size, would "gut wetland protection," said

Sandra Ripberger, chair of the Manatee Conservation Committee of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Group.

"Rather than changing the land development code to allow wetlands to be destroyed more easily, Sierra urges Manatee County to focus on restoration," she wrote in a letter to commissioners last month.

"... Nothing in the county's revised code indicates the real reason for the changes better than the introduction of the words 'non-viable' to describe small wetlands," she wrote. "Nowhere can any definition of 'non-viable" wetlands be found in scientific literature ..."

Neal advocates letting such wetlands go and allowing developers to donate more pristine lands elsewhere, or earmark funding for such a purpose, as the revised ordinance permits.

The proposal is to "preserve and protect the wetland functions of water quality enhancement, climatic moderation and flood and erosion control" and to protect renewable resources.

It would:

• Prohibit wetland impacts except in cases where no other practical alternative exists, or where there is an overriding public benefit.

• Require delineation of all wetlands on a proposed development.

• Require mitigation of wetland impacts, and protection of preserved wetlands from development through buffers and other measures.

• Ensure long-term wetland protection "by directing growth away from sensitive areas through land-use regulations."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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