Opponents of the massive Long Bar Pointe development along the shores of Sarasota Bay should be rejoicing over the latest news about the project. The Manatee County Planning Commission is recommending most of the proposal be excluded from the boundaries of the new "Urban Service Area."
That means the project wouldn't qualify for exemptions from higher-level planning reviews and approvals -- should the county commission agree with the proposed amendment to Manatee's Comprehensive Plan. Since Long Bar Pointe's vacant land sits outside the urban setting that the service area is intended to benefit, that's makes perfect sense.
The Planning Commission proposal omits low-lying lands in costal evacuation zones, eliminating 3,662 acres from the original 24,406-acre Urban Service Area.
As designed, the service area reduces the development approval process in order to encourage in-fill projects in the unincorporated portion of the county south of the Manatee River and west of U.S. 301. The idea is to take advantage of existing infrastructure, a welcome goal for a part of the county in need of economic development.
Long Bar Pointe is not situated in an urban setting -- far from it.
Various agencies both state and local are still examining the mixed-use development proposal, and a site plan has yet to be submitted. The county's approval process is far from over.
Considering more than 1,000 people expressed opposition to the project at a county commission hearing over the summer, we expect the fierce fight to continue.
At that meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to reject the developers' proposed countywide text amendment but approved a map amendment on a tight 4-3 vote. That approval only came after developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman eliminated the boat basin, bay dredging and mangrove removal from the original plan, a wise move considering their entire project appeared doomed otherwise.
The map amendment changes the zoning from residential-9 to mixed use, thus allowing a luxury hotel and conference center as well as commercial and residential development. Mixed-use projects are a welcome growing trend across the country as more and more people seek places where they can live, work and play with little transportation concerns.
A new issue
But we wonder if Long Bar Pointe, being in an evacuation zone and vulnerable to tropical storm and hurricane storm surge and flooding, will be a viable project with the pending large flood insurance rate increases.
Under the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2012, the National Flood Insurance Program is poised to unleash its own surge, and coastal property owners will be hit hard with higher premiums. Unless Congress relents, stalls the rate hikes and allows premiums to rise more slowly, the impact could chase island and coastal homeowners away -- even into default on mortgages nobody wants to purchase in light of unaffordable insurance.
The Biggert-Waters Act could fundamentally change the landscape, turning coastal neighborhoods into enclaves for the wealthy only. But that's another issue.
Meanwhile, Long Bar Pointe proceeds. We endorse the Planning Commission's recommendation on changes to the Urban Service Area and urge county commissioners to adopt the proposal at its Nov. 7 meeting. While the project holds great economic potential for the county, it deserves scrutiny, not fast-track approval.