MANATEE -- Citing poor weather, Manatee County commissioners decided Thursday to postpone a public hearing on the controversial Long Bar Pointe development, but they approved an equally sweeping change on a 5-2 vote: A special "urban service area" that would free developers from a higher level planning review.
Nine people in the audience, who braved Tropical Storm Andrea to object to the Long Bar Pointe project, became incensed and spoke in opposition to creating an urban service area, a change to the county Comprehensive Plan that eliminated a review called a "Development of Regional Impact."
Such a review refers to large-scale developments that affect more than one county or jurisdiction.
The urban service area, they noted, included all of the Long Bar Pointe project site, as well as a great swath of the rest of the county.
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"I originally came here to talk about Long Bar Pointe," said Stuart Smith, referring to a proposed southwest Bradenton project calling for mixed-use development on 463.2 acres, including single- and multi-family units, hotel, marina, office and commercial space, and a conference center.
"You're being asked to remove another tool that helps protect the public interest. I don't think it is in the public interest, and ask that you modify it," Smith said.
The commission didn't.
Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioners Carol Whitmore, John Chappie, Betsy Benac and Vanessa Baugh all voted in favor of a comp plan change creating an urban service area.
Commissioners Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino voted against it.
The county's professional staff supported the change, as did the Manatee County Planning Commission, recommending the urban service area be established in the unincorporated area south of the Manatee River and west of U.S. Hwy. 301.
The Florida Legislature created a specific exemption from the Development of Regional Impact process for such an area, allowing development to be reviewed through local government alone, county documents said.
Deputy County Attorney Sarah Schenk described the DRI review as "sort of a dated animal that hasn't kept up with the times."
Benac, once a county planner herself, equated the concept of the urban service area as a district with existing infrastructure, such as roads, water lines and transit, where county officials want to encourage "infill" development.
If your property were located in such a district, and you wanted to develop it, you would be exempt from the Development of Regional Impact process, she said.
Benac, who also worked many years for commercial developers, said such reviews were "very expensive and not necessary."
A development proposal must still meet all state requirements, such as state environmental reviews and Southwest Florida Water Management District requirements, she said.
Speaking in opposition, Gallen looked up the definition of urban service area and said it meant a "built-up area."
"Look at some areas we're talking about: They're very coastal," he said.
The audience was not so diplomatic.
"Somebody's trying to sneak this through," said Lois Congdon.
"Why include all of this undeveloped area that's coastal high hazard?" inquired Barbara Hines, vice chair for the environmental group called ManaSota-88. "As we know, both state and federal law encourage us not to increase density in coastal high hazard areas."
The public hearing on the Longbar Pointe development was postponed to Aug. 6.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.