Manatee County Commissioners side with neighbors and nix East Manatee housing project

skennedy@bradenton.comSeptember 6, 2013 

MANATEE -- After pleas from neighbors who sought to protect their rural lifestyles, the Manatee County Commission voted 5-2 Thursday to deny plans for an east county housing development.

Voting to deny a rezoning and related requests for the Martin/Hillman tract were Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Michael Gallen, John Chappie, Robin DiSabatino and Carol Whitmore.

Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioner Betsy Benac were opposed.

Benac had first made a motion to approve the 77.9-acre project after Caleb Grimes, counsel for the owners, had agreed to reduce the number of units from 195 to 175.

But that motion failed 2-5, with Bustle and Benac voting in favor and Baugh, Gallen, Chappie, DiSabatino and Whitmore opposed.

"We're very disappointed and we worked very hard to make sure we were in compliance with our Comp Plan and regulations," said Grimes after the vote. He added that his clients, Mary Jane Martin Smith and Richard E. Martin, would take a break to weigh their options.

The decision on the future of the forested tract at 17145 Waterline Rd. took part of the morning and all of the afternoon to make.

Commissioners who voted to deny said the project was incompatible with the agricultural nature of the area and thought 195 detached single family homes was too many.

They were concerned about whether two-lane Waterline Road, prone to flooding, could handle the traffic; and they preferred a "low-impact design" or "conservation subdivision" that would be more environmentally-friendly.

Those who voted to approve the project said they could find no reasons to deny it.

"We don't have anything in our code or Comp Plan that says we can deny this outright," said Benac.

About a dozen residents of

the area successfully urged the board to deny the zoning change from general agriculture to planned development residential, and the board also nixed a general development plan and a special approval request.

A flood of emails to commissioners, many from beach residents who had apparently read a flier over the weekend, also may have been a factor in the decision.

During a break in the meeting, Waterline Road resident Jack Richardson said he had been affiliated with the group, which had mailed about 4,000 fliers opposing the project.

During his testimony, he told the board: "This is just urban sprawl; we can mitigate, work around it, but this is urban sprawl; we've got to stop urban sprawl."

Tim Almeter, another resident of Waterline Road, told the board it should protect agriculture as a viable, short-term major asset of the county.

"There are a lot of Comp policies that are being overlooked," he told the board.

Miles Gentry, a member of the county's professional staff, which supported the Martin/Hillwood project, said the current zoning for the property called for one dwelling unit per 5 acres.

Owner Mary Jane Martin Smith testified in favor of her project, saying the case had been surrounded by emotional hype.

"My father trusted the leadership, so more than 45 years ago, he invested in property on Waterline Road," she told the board, adding her father hoped to eventually sell and provide security for his family.

"We are not chopping the land up or adversely affecting the environment," she said. "The general plan has been in place 20 years."

She urged commissioners to approve the project and "provide homes for new families moving into the county."

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

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