MANATEE -- The sides are gearing up again for another Long Bar Pointe battle leading up to a hearing next month.
When county commissioners convene 9 a.m. Jan. 23 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, it will be the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie sequel. More than 1,000 people showed up in August to weigh in on land use changes that will change the character of an environmentally sensitive land bordering the nationally recognized pristine Sarasota Bay.
Whether the attendance matches that 13-hour-plus meeting from Aug. 6 remains to be seen. But it's a battle that one loosely organized group called Save Our Bay wants to match -- in fact, double to 2,000.
A handful of supporters met last week in Fishermen's Hall to take on a fight adopted by the residents of Flori
da's oldest working commercial fishing village, Cortez. Realizing the optics of the meeting in August -- where people flailed arms to show support of an opinion, wore green "Yes" caps to support the project and environmentally conscious folks waved inflatable dolphins with slogans on them -- the arguments are as much visual and emotional as they are about facts.
"If Carlos comes in here, give him a good ole Cortez welcome," organizer Joe Kane, a Cortezian, told the group. He was referencing Carlos Beruff, who is partnering with Larry Lieberman of the Barrington Group to build Long Bar Pointe into a mixed-use development.
The commissioners will consider whether to adopt a future land use map amendment to change 463 acres from residential-9, allowing 16 homes per acre plus office/retail space, to a more intense mixed-use development.
That designation opens up the property to the following maximum uses:
1,086 single-family homes
2,531 multi-family homes
120,000 square feet of commercial/retail space
72,000 square feet of office space
84,000 square feet of conference center space
The commission, which transmitted the amendment for state, local and regional agency review, can either adopt the amendment, modify the amendment or reject the amendment.
Modifying the amendment would have to be done carefully. The commission voted to exclude language about allowing a 300-boat marina on the property, but only after the commission's legal team said it was OK as long as the applicant agreed. If the commission modified the request on its own, a legal battle could ensue on the privately initiated amendment.
The residents' groups say they aren't looking for a courtroom battle, but instead holding one in the court of public opinion as the next hearing looms.
"We've had a lot of issues in Cortez, and we've been through an awful lot," resident member Linda Molto said. "People here are real fighters, and mostly what we're fighting for is to keep our community and keep our commercial fishing industry vital.
"We care about this Long Bar Pointe project," she said, "because it will definitely affect the water around the bay."
Calls to Long Bar Pointe attorney Ed Vogler II, as well as Leiberman and Beruff were not returned by deadline Friday.
The crux of the Cortez village's argument has been about what's the better economic development -- a luxury resort or the state's oldest commercial fishing operation that puts food on the tables for tourists all over.
Organizers are figuring out new T-shirts to make, where to get signs and more. Terri Wonder, a candidate for county commissioner, is leading another group called Bay Life Preservers, which is organizing a rally next month in Bayshore Gardens. Other groups are making their presence known through social media as well with Facebook pages like Stop Long Bar Pointe, Save the Manatee County Shoreline and a new website called OurManatee.com.
Observing the movement, Beruff and his team said during the summer that they should have hired a public relations firm to get their message out. During the August hearing, Gulf Coast Builders Exchange made its support for Long Bar visible, helping supporters with signs and green hats that read "Yes!"
A request for comment from Gulf Coast Builders Exchange's executive director, Mary Doughtery-Slapp, was not returned before deadline.
The social media presence in favor of Long Bar Pointe has died down as well. The Facebook page was last updated Aug. 9, while the website, which at one time featured a rumor vs. reality ad, is now stripped down telling visitors to come back at a "later time for exciting development news."
No mixed-use site plan has been filed yet with the county for an updated version of Long Bar Pointe. The developers are already approved for 272 units for an initial phase with an allowance for up to 4,169 units on the whole parcel.
The developers are suing the county in circuit court about building the $2.2 million El Conquistador Parkway extension that serves the development. The suit, filed July 25, has not reached trial stage. County attorneys determined in August that the suit prevented a local development agreement tied to the project from being used as a support document for the amendment requests.
State agencies respond
Commissioners will rely in part on the newest information from the state agency that covers road and water impacts.
The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council raised concern about the potential effects of the development to Sarasota Bay, a "Natural Resources of Regional Significance."
The council said that development has to address how it will prohibit new channels for the sake of development, prevent dredging or filling, as well as other protective steps for the coastline and waterways. Specifically, the council determined that private marinas and docks would be incompatible uses and do not meet the definition of allowed "region-serving uses" and "water-dependent uses."
The council also discouraged developments in mangroves.
"The dense coverage by mangroves and the extensive coverage by seagrasses along the shoreline indicate that the waters are shallow for a substantial distance from the upland," the council wrote. "Any uses allowed in, on or over these habitats will adversely impact them and degrade their ecosystem values."
Other agencies, including the state departments of Agriculture, Education, Environmental Protection and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offered no comment or objections.
Florida Department of Transportation requested that its agency be involved in any future traffic analyses tied to Long Bar Pointe to make sure there is sufficient roadway capacity. The agency noted that without the amendment, portions of U.S. 41 from Florida Boulevard to Tallevast Road are anticipated to have unacceptable service levels by 2035.
Urban Service Area appeal
While the county commission will have to weigh arguments from both the developers and residents about what Long Bar Pointe could look like, an administrative court battle may determine how fast the project could proceed.
In the latest move, Long Bar Pointe's developers filed an appeal Dec. 6 with the Division of Administrative Hearings to include the project in the county's newly created Urban Service Area. These battles could find their way up to the Administration Commission if they need to be resolved, and could take years to settle. That commission is made up of the Florida governor and his cabinet.
The zone, approved in November, is a newly created area designed to support infill development by speeding up the process for projects considered Developments of Regional Impact, a state designation for large projects that could pull on resources from more than one county. The new service area would allow the county to handle much of the reviews to speed up the development process, rather than having the state weigh in and slow the approval process.
Vogler wrote in his appeal that the county arbitrarily excluded his client's land, which is the only contiguous property in the unincorporated area south of Manatee River and east of U.S. 301 that would exceed the threshold for DRI review, according to the appeal. The developer has not filed a plan reflecting the mixed-use project, preferring to wait to see if the county will OK the Urban Service Area.
So far, John Osborne, planning and zoning official for Manatee County, has been subpoenaed for the case. A deposition of data, testimony and other evidence will be held Jan. 3.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.