So many questions, so little time over the concerns surrounding the proposed Long Bar Pointe development.
But this we know:
The vision is big and bold -- a luxury hotel and boat basin, a convention center, shopping and dining, homes with boat slips, public access to Sarasota Bay and a boardwalk through mangroves.
The impacts are big, too, and bold in the sense that they are far-reaching -- dredging a channel in the shallow bay waters and through mangroves, destroying seagrass, shaving the tops off mangroves, chasing off wildlife.
In a classic case of developers versus the environmentalists, Manatee County commissioners are tasked with deciding whether sweeping comprehensive plan changes are in the community's best interests.
Public interest is intense with petitions, and protests on city streets and out on the bay -- so intense the commission moved Tuesday's public hearing on the project to the Bradenton Area Convention Center to accommodate a large crowd.
Pros and cons both strong
The mixed-use, high-density 463-acre project promises to become an economic engine driving greater prosperity with increases in employment and tourism as well as new residents -- all contributing to the tax base.
But the potential downside is equally great. By altering the county's comprehensive plan to allow the massive development to move forward through the approval process, commissioners will be backtracking on a proud history of environmental stewardship.
Those strict development standards have shaped Manatee County into one of the few remaining coastal population centers that retain an Old Florida atmosphere.
Manatee's coastline does not feature the condo towers and high-rise resorts found elsewhere across the state. Local tourism officials have been aggressively marketing Manatee with a strong brand: "Real Authentic Florida."
Would Long Bar Pointe's tall hotel and dense development damage that brand? Or are the rewards of a destination resort and mixed-use neighborhood more valuable?
The environmental concerns
Developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman vow to produce an "ecologically friendly project," as stated during a meeting with the Herald's Editorial Board.
The 80-slip boat basin will not be a traditional marina with gas pumps or sewage disposal. The project will prevent agricultural discharges into Sarasota Bay. Tainted stormwater runoff will be treated, improving water quality there.
They say they can prove a net environmental benefit.
Representatives of the Manatee County Audubon Society, Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club and Manasota-88 beg to differ.
The mangrove forest along the bay is prime habitat for brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills, neither of which are likely to frequent the area should the trees be trimmed and humans encroach into the environment, they told this Editorial Board.
Rare migratory birds also rest there -- and bring birders from across the world to catch a glimpse.
Ecotourism is big business throughout Florida, but especially in Manatee County with its abundance of nature preserves and undisturbed coastline.
Plus, dredging of seagrass and boat traffic would "destroy" the prime recreational and commercial fishing off Long Bar Pointe. Would this indeed occur?
Flooding, traffic big issues, too
This vacant farmland sits in a Coastal High Hazard zone, prone to flooding and vulnerable to storm surge. But the developers plan to raise the elevation and basically build a dam against storm surge. Critics scoff at that notion. What would happen in strong hurricanes? What model exists to show us?
Another major issue is traffic. With few arterial outlets away from the development, this is especially a concern in the event of a hurricane evacuation. The developers maintain the project will meet concurrency requirements. But during a disaster, can the few roads carry a heavy load out of harm's way?
Comprehensive plan restrictive
Currently, the comprehensive plan bars certain projects in environmentally sensitive tracts such as Long Bar Pointe -- even with a net positive benefit to the environment.
And county staff recommends against the developers' proposed comp plan amendment as inconsistent with current state and local restrictions, saying the developers have failed to demonstrate any material public benefit that staff could convert into guidelines for similar major development proposals.
The comp plan text amendment, though, includes language tailored to Long Bar Pointe while restricting future applications to projects of 200 acres that are adjacent to navigable waters and a traffic thoroughfare.
A tough assessment
In a position paper sent to county commissioners, the League of Women Voters of Manatee County found the amendment would impact two chapters of the comp plan:
"It would exempt qualifying projects from the entire Conservation and Coastal Management chapters ... including those protecting air, water, habitat, wetlands, beaches and controlling toxic waste. This is an enormous abrogation of these important rules."
That is a troubling analysis, one we want to hear county staff discuss.
Other portions of the proposed text amendment feature language too vague to be acceptable -- leaving the county with weak arguments against future project approvals and opening the door to litigation should a development be rejected.
At the same time, we don't believe comprehensive plans are carved in stone never to be altered.
But great care should be taken with the consequences thoroughly discussed and debated -- in a factual and analytical fashion, not an emotional one. That hasn't occurred yet in this overheated controversy.
Too many unknowns
Other specifics are lacking as well. The developers cast this as a legacy project, "something spectacular" -- but a detailed site plan has not been produced, only an artistic rendition.
As Beruff states in his commentary piece today, this is standard procedure in the approval process. Still, should the commission approve major policy changes blindly -- that is, with only development generalities?
The public deserves an environmental impact study developed by independent experts. The developers have hired a team of experts, including former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, to produce a written report on the plan to improve Sarasota Bay. A complete report on mitigation plans should be produced, too.
Too much is at stake and too little is known. Too few concrete facts have been put forth. Too much vague language and promises are in play. A fully informed and deliberate decision is required since this impacts the future of Manatee County.
By all means, let's have a big public discussion of this project Tuesday. Then let's slow down.
Delay a decision until details are forthcoming, especially on the environmental impacts. A fully informed determination must be made for such a major policy change in exchange for a development that holds such significant economic impacts.