Manatee County Commission steers wise course on Long Bar project

August 8, 2013 

The marathon hearing on the resort and residential development proposal for Long Bar Pointe provided clarity on many issues -- and caution on one pivotal feature of the project. After more than 12 hours, Manatee County commissioners came up early Wednesday with a prudent split decision -- unanimously rejecting a countywide text amendment to the comprehensive land-use plan but voting 4-3 in approving a map amendment.

The map amendment changes the zoning from residential-9 to mixed use, which allows developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman to move forward with their vision of a waterfront resort with a luxury hotel, conference center, offices, shops, restaurants and thousands of residences.

With commissioners expressing heartburn over the inclusion of a boat basin and dredging through mangroves and into Sarasota Bay, the developers wisely removed the marina from their map amendment proposal.

The amendment likely would have failed had they not erased the boat basin, by far the most contentious component in the development.

And county attorneys brought up a key issue during the meeting -- one not discussed until then, but surely should have in the run-up to the public meeting -- attended by about 1,000 people at the beginning.

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Bert Harris Act case, justices ruled that a development denial amounts to the unlawful taking of property under certain circumstances. In that case, a governmental entity demanded additional project mitigation that the high court found to be "extortionate."

(Lieberman is already suing the county over the "taking" of land for El Conquistador Parkway without just compensation.)

Had Manatee County commissioners approved the map with the boat basin but later denied a site plan with a marina, the fear was exposure to another "takings" lawsuit. Plus, there were legal concerns over commissioners removing the boat basin.

Since the developers deleted the marina, angst over possible litigation eased and the commission accepted the map amendment. Before reversing course, the partners had described the boat basin as indispensable to the project, and they could certainly mount another attempt at approval.

Beruff and Lieberman also brought out fresh information on the environmental impacts of the full project. Scientists stated mangrove mitigation has a 90 percent success rate while seagrass plantings could take extra effort. Plus, the project would not encroach on 98.5 percent of the existing coastline and 90 percent of the present mangroves would be protected.

While those numbers make the project more palatable, the dredging far into Sarasota Bay and mangrove destruction for a canal were never going to win commission approval. The county's long-range comprehensive plan bans development that requires dredging along that coastline.

On Tuesday, the public also learned about another poison pill contained in the text amendment. County staff unveiled a map that showed the proposed language would apply to 42 properties strung out from Myakka City and Duette to Lakewood Ranch and Terra Ceia.

Plus, developers could acquire the 200-acre minimum set along navigable water and an arterial road as set in the text, and then apply for mixed-use zoning. But the language was too vague and exposed too much sensitive land to intensive development.

This is a major victory for the environmentalists who lobbied long and hard against the hot-button boat basin issue. And it's a victory for the comprehensive plan, where decades of environmentally friendly land-use regulations have made Manatee County a unique place in the state.

At the same time, the commission embraced the future in approving the map amendment for a mixed-use project on Long Bar Pointe. In a changing development world, more and more members of the younger generations eschew suburban sprawl and gated neighborhoods in favor of the urban village concept.

Time will tell whether Beruff and Lieberman proceed with a site plan for a resort-style community -- or return to previous plans for a mostly residential neighborhood. One way or another, that land will be developed.

Kudos to all parties for enduring a 12-hour marathon meeting to seek community consensus -- especially to county commissioners. It's encouraging to witness civic engagement on such a large scale.

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