PERICO ISLAND -- A four-home compound to be built for Pat Neal's family along Anna Maria Sound shoreline is drawing fire from critics who say it opens the door for the destruction of dozens of acres of wetlands and mangroves.
The development, dubbed Harbor Sound, was the subject of citizen protest at Wednesday's Bradenton City Council meeting and will likely face review before an administrative hearing. The outcry comes two weeks after the Southwest Florida Water Management District announced its intent to issue an environmental resource permit, and after the city approved the project's site plan.
Opponents believe the stakes in the disagreement are high, saying that final approval at Harbor Sound could set a precedent that would allow other developers to build homes on environmentally sensitive land. For his part, Pat Neal said he is looking to build homes for himself, his wife and his sons in a place they set aside years ago.
"This has been planned at this location since 2006," said Neal, president of Lakewood Ranch construction and development company Neal Communities. "This was an everyday, ordinary permit."
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Harbor Sound is designed to feature four homes on four contiguous lots of approximately one acre each. The homes are to be built in the middle of 40 acres of mangrove-covered wetlands that border Harbor Isle, a 130-acre residential development being built for the last several years. The Neal family has owned the land through a trust since 1997.
The homes would be built atop several feet of fill material that Neal said would be laid over a section of wetlands disturbed by years of human activity. A retaining wall on the seaward side of the fill would define the edges of the building lots. Nearly an acre of mangroves would be cut down to make room for the lots.
Under the SWFMD permit, Neal said "exotic nuisance vegetation" has been removed from a portion of the property's building area. The property is accessed via a driveway that connects to roads in the neighboring development, Harbor Isle.
City planners agree with Neal that there was nothing unusual about the family's request to build Harbor Sound. Brady Woods, the zoning manager who worked on the site plan approval, said the buildable portion of the property qualifies as part of the city's Residential-1 zone. That zone allows the construction of up to six homes per acre.
However, very little of the 40 acres is in the R1 zone. Much of it is classified as conservation lands on the city's future zoning map, and the majority of it lies in wetlands or in the shallows of Anna Maria Sound.
Therein lies the problem, says project opponent Joe McClash. McClash, a former Manatee County commissioner, says the city planners erred when considering just the four-acre piece for a site plan permit. A subdivision plat application submitted to the city for Harbor Sound shows the acreage as the property's full 40.36.
With the entire property in play, McClash said planners must rescind the site plan approval and re-evaluate the project under stricter zoning standards. He contends that too much of the property lies too close to sea level to allow a construction project to be approved under the R1 standard.
During Wednesday's public meeting, he said the city "has many comp plan violations with this approval."
"A lot of rules aren't being followed," McClash said.
McClash said he does not object to the Neals building three or four homes on the uplands of their property, as long as they do not impact wetlands or mangroves. But, he believes, their approval from the city should be rescinded and the project should be resubmitted to be evaluated under the city's planned development project standard.
If it isn't, he said, the sensitive land could be further developed, with more homes eventually being built. Plus, if wetlands are filled and mangroves are cut to make room for these homes, McClash believes developers owning other environmentally sensitive lands, such as the controversial Longbar Pointe, may find a precedent that will allow their larger projects to go forward.
Neal said he will not develop the remainder of his Harbor Sound acreage.
"It is and always was planned to be a family compound," he said.
Perico environmental history
The city of Bradenton annexed the majority of Perico Island north of State Road 64 in the late 1990s. Since then, the island has been the site of both dense residential development and ecological preservation. Toronto development company Minto Homes is building Harbor Isle, a 686-condo/home development adjacent to Neal's land. Before 2007, paper company St. Joe had planned to build its Seven Shores development on the same 100-plus acre site, but sold to Minto for $8 million when the housing market crashed. St. Joe had purchased the land from Manatee Fruit Farm for $2 million.
Neal himself built the 996-home Perico Bay Club south of State Road 64 and east of Harbor Sound in the 1990s.
Both the St. Joe and Harbor Isle project proposals drew the ire of island residents and environmental groups. The challenge to the development eventually forced a legal settlement that ended with Manatee County buying 176 acres for the Perico Preserve. The land will be a nature preserve in perpetuity.
More recently, Pat Neal donated $6.9 million of a $9 million purchase price to Manatee County for 113 acres of natural habitat he had owned for years just south of Harbor Sound. The Neal Preserve opened in April as a conservation park.
If the Neal family goes on to build at Harbor Sound, it will be required to make up for the natural habitat destroyed. The terms of its permitting require the developer to purchase land credits from the Tampa Bay Mitigation Bank, an organization that allows property owners to pay for developing sensitive lands by buying credits that help the bank maintain 161 acres of wetlands in Hillsborough County. The Neals will also contribute $5,000 to the city of Palmetto for an information kiosk at the city's boat ramp.
On top of that, Bradenton's planning director, Tim Polk, said the developer will have to restore or otherwise mitigate a yet-undetermined amount of natural lands elsewhere in the city to make up for the loss of wetlands and trees.
Polk said the Harbor Sound will be tightly monitored during the remainder of its development.
"The city code allows us to ride herd over how this development is going to look, how the development is going to sustain itself not only for today but for the long haul," he said.
Both McClash and Nokomis-based environmental group Manasota 88 have filed petitions with SWFMD asking for a formal administrative hearing concerning the environmental resource permit issued for Harbor Sound. The petitions are under review by the Florida Office of General Counsel, according to SWFMD spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.
Further opposition to Harbor Sound could come from island neighbors and the Sierra Club. At Wednesday's meeting, Helen Jo Williams, a member of the Sierra Club of Manatee County, said development on Perico Island is getting out of control despite its two nature preserves.
"What we have left is Harbor Sound, which is a mangrove swamp," she said. "The island should have been left a bird sanctuary to begin with."
City officials noted that some speaking out against the development currently reside at Perico Bay Yacht Club. Ward 1 Counciman Gene Gallo said if some of the same people opposing the Harbor Sound development had opposed the Perico Bay Yacht Club, "They would not be living there right now."
Gallo represents Perico Island.
In the meantime, no activity is expected at the Harbor Sound site. The island colonial-style homes, which Pat Neal said will be built by son Michael, probably won't break ground until 2016.
-- Mark Young, Urban Affairs reporter, contributed to this report.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.