Economy vs. environment in bayfront project

June 6, 2013 

Manatee County commissioners are caught in a dilemma that presents very tough choices. At today's land-use meeting, the subject of the Long Bar Pointe development will come up, and we recommend a cautious approach.

The two competing interests involve the usual suspects: major growth versus environmental protection.

When any developer comes along with an idea for a big project on prime waterfront real estate, the temptation is great for a ringing endorsement. The staggering economic benefits and job growth in a county still hungry for a stronger recovery from the recession is one justification.

For a government weary of budget cuts and leery of tax increases, the opportunity for fresh property, sales and tourism tax revenues only increases the pressure for approval.

On the other hand, the environmental sacrifice would be great -- with mangrove forests and seagrass beds destroyed. But the primary concern with Long Bar Pointe extends beyond this project: The county would have to amend its Comprehensive Plan, which governs future growth, and thus open the floodgates to similar developments elsewhere.

A bit of history is in order.

Long Bar Pointe sits on rich farmland alongside Sarasota Bay in southwest Manatee County -- paralleling El Conquistador Parkway in the general area where 75th Street West and 53rd Avenue West intersect at a roundabout.

In 2006, developer Larry Lieberman won county approval for a residential community, amending the plan in 2008. Today, he and new partner Carlos Beruff have far grander plans in mind: mixed-use development with single- and multi-family residences, office and commercial space, a conference center and -- the toppers -- a hotel and marina.

The 463.2-acre project, though, includes 294.7 acres within the Coastal High Hazard zone, designated as such for being prone to flooding during storms -- and defenseless to a hurricane's storm surge.

For the commission to approve the Long Bar Pointe project, the Comprehensive Plan would have to be amended. That would weaken the "backbone of (the county's) environmental protection policies," one county planning division managers stated several weeks ago.But the Manatee County Planning Commission gave its blessing to limited exceptions to the coastal and conservation chapters of the comp plan, overriding county staff objections.

On the other hand, the developers describe the project as "transformational for west Bradenton" by bringing a "world-class project" to the bayfront.

The combination hotel-marina would provide Manatee County with a bayfront resort to compete with Sarasota and Longboat Key. The 300-berth marina could accommodate 100-foot yachts, bringing more affluent guests to Manatee.

But the marina would require a canal -- dredged through 20 to 40 acres of mangroves while digging out two acres of seagrass beds for bay access in the shallow waters there. The current comp plan does not allow such an adverse impact to seagrass -- "some of the most significant seagrass beds in all of Sarasota Bay," according to county staff.

Attorneys for the development maintain the proposed text amendment to the comp plan is limited and would likely apply to only a handful of properties. The public deserves certainty on this point, not guesswork, and county staff plan to present greater clarity on that at today's land-use meeting.

Commissioners will be weighing the economy versus the environment not only for today but for the future. Both sides articulate good arguments, and we expect a deliberate and spirited debate. And a middle ground can be found.

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