Controversy over Long Bar Pointe project explodes anew

Will Manatee County development proposal regain Urban Services Area status over favoritism claim?

February 19, 2014 

One of the two developers of Long Bar Pointe has thrown down the gauntlet with accusations that Manatee County exhibited favoritism in booting his bayfront property out of the new Urban Service Area. Developer Carlos Beruff contends that Long Bar Pointe's adjacent land owners, IMG Academy and Manatee Fruit Farms, received preferential treatment in the county's restructuring of the USA. Is that indeed the case?

Beruff stated his case in a two-hour deposition to county legal staff, and a final hearing before the Division of Administrative Hearings is scheduled for March. The developer contends the county fell prey to political pressure in unfairly pulling his project out of the USA. In his deposition, Beruff states that county officials expressed concern in a phone call that Long Bar project opponents would file an appeal if the property were included in the USA.

Manatee County government declines to publicly comment because this is an active legal case, Herald business writer Charles Schelle reported Sunday.

There are a host of additional questions surrounding this swampy issue, one that has fired up Manatee County voters like none other in recent years. The key issues are coastal flooding and storm evacuation concerns, as well as the environmental impacts on ecologically sensitive land and bay waters. Broader unease came into play, too, including impacts on the historic Cortez fishing village.

The intense public scrutiny boiled over last August when 1,000 people descended on a Manatee County commission hearing on Beruff's expansive development proposal for Long Bar.

That begs this question about the property's exclusion from previous inclusion in the USA: Aren't elected officials allowed to change course due to constituent desires? If those desires are reasonable, then yes, but is it fair to have adjacent properties managed by two sets of rules?

Is there a smoking gun that would validate Beruff's claim that the county excluded the Long Bar proposal because of the controversy and to ensure progress on projects at IMG and Manatee Fruit Farms?

Would the USA change amount to an unlawful taking of land? Is the favoritism charge a prelude to a "takings" lawsuit?

Beruff and fellow Long Bar Pointe developer Larry Lieberman are already suing Manatee County in a takings case over the construction of El Conquistador Parkway, which borders their Sarasota Bay front property.

Could the developers revive the major development plan they pulled back in December after winning initial commission approval in August for a controversial map amendment that would have allowed a zoning change to mixed use? That project envisioned thousands of homes and condos, a large hotel, conference center, offices, stores and restaurants spread across 463 acres.

Inclusion in an Urban Service Area is important because large-scale developments would be exempt from certain state review should the project meet an array of conditions. The state also requires that county reviews be more stringent than state evaluations under Development of Regional Impact regulations. This quicker approval process saves developers the expense and time that additional state review would require -- Beruff estimates some nine months for Long Bar Pointe with exclusion from Manatee's USA.

The county commission created the USA in November, but excluded Long Bar Pointe from the boundaries submitted to the state for review last summer.

If Manatee County's review process is stronger than the state's, why should coastal projects be forced to endure extra delays and costs? That question came up during the commission's November meeting and close 4-3 vote on the USA boundaries.

One of the wild cards in this is legislation filed by state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, that would exempt DRI projects in Manatee and other counties within a USA from state review. Passage in the upcoming legislative session would render this dispute moot.

Still, there are so many questions and claims surrounding the development of Long Bar Pointe that this appears bound to be simmering for years and likely to end up in court one way or another. Expect more revelations to become public as this develops, further inflaming the controversy.

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