Linda T. Jones: Manatee County shouldn't compromise environment policies for Long Bar

CommentaryAugust 4, 2013 

The developers of Long Bar Pointe say that their project will be a boon to our economy, and assure us that it will not harm the environment. If that is true, then why are they requesting special exemptions from county development policies that ensure no harm will occur?

We're not talking about a few rules. Their two one-sentence text amendments would exempt the developers from the entire Conservation and Coastal Management sections of the Manatee County comprehensive plan -- 47 pages of policies that protect our natural habitats, keep our water and air clean and prevent flooding during hurricanes.

These rules not only protect our resources, they also support a growing ecotourism economy. Bird and wildlife watching alone brings in $3.1 billion to Florida. Add to that all of the other nature-related activities that attract our visitors.

We know very little about the developers' site-specific plans. They have submitted only a traffic study to the county, and have shown the public a diagram that includes a large marina, boat ramp and boat basin -- uses which would be incompatible with our current comprehensive plan.

The new navigational channel into deeper water will require the dredging of large amounts of the highest quality seagrass beds and wetlands in our county. These systems are essential habitats and nurseries for our fish and shellfish, and very important for our local commercial and recreational fishery businesses.

Mangroves, essential to marine life, birds and the estuarine food chain, also protect the shoreline from erosion and flooding. They cannot be extensively trimmed without harm. They need both their roots and their branches. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, extensive trimming of a mangrove shoreline could result in a loss of 87 percent of its annual productivity.

Developers say they will mitigate the damage, but you cannot mitigate natural habitats or a destroyed coastline. Mitigating turtle grass seldom works to restore what was lost.

It has taken many years and millions of dollars in regional public funds to achieve the gains in seagrass coverage in Sarasota Bay, mainly due to improving water quality. It makes little sense for our county to spend large sums to restore this bay's seagrass and then adopt amendments that would reduce them.

The developers say they wish to create a "public benefit." However, we already have our most important public benefit -- our natural resources, and no public boat ramp will make up for their loss.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appears to agree, and in May turned down a permit for a similar project in Pasco County. An upscale housing development asked permission to dredge a 60-foot-wide channel through seagrass beds for their marina. The Corps determined that the project was "not in the public interest," citing many of the same concerns we see in the plan for Long Bar Pointe.

Making the developers' boat even harder to row is that Sarasota Bay is both an Outstanding Florida Water and a National Estuary. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection fact sheet on OFWs lists public interest tests, most of which this project would fail. One reads, "Whether the activity will adversely affect the fishing or recreational value or marine productivity in the vicinity of the activity."

The county's planning staff has recommended denial of these rule-loophole text amendments. They object to the potential for environmental damage, their many inconsistencies with other policies -- the county's as well as the state's -- and lack of justification for change. Consistency means that rules may not contradict each other.

The map amendment also should not be approved. The potential impacts from increases in mixed-use intensities, traffic, hurricane evacuation, and marina are inconsistent with our current comprehensive plan.

There is no need to "fix" our comprehensive plan. We have a plan that is working well -- one that encourages healthy growth and reflects our community vision. Our county commissioners should defend it.

They should also be wary of the precedent set by these amendments. The vaguely worded policy exemptions open the door for other, similar requests to ignore the rules.

Safeguarding our environment will not prevent the property owners from building a profitable development. They already have an approved plan allowing reasonable use of their land. They simply will not be able to change it in ways that harm Sarasota Bay.

The policies that protect our natural resources should apply to all. They protect all that we need and enjoy, and also form the reason why new residents, visitors and clean industries wish to locate here.

Linda T. Jones, is chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Group of the Sierra Club.

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