Bookended by rows of houses, the Sarasota Bay shoreline that local environmentalists say is the last long stretch of pristine mangroves in the area is up for a development decision, yet again.
Aqua by the Bay is a proposed 2,894-home development on 529 acres between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay, just at the south end of 53rd Avenue West. It will go before the Manatee County Planning Commission on Thursday, with staff recommending approval of the general development plan with stipulations. The Board of County Commissioners is set to review it on May 4.
The development’s previous iteration, called Long Bar Pointe, was denied in 2013. But it’s back with a few changes and a proposed mitigation bank, also named Long Bar Pointe after the nearby landmark with the same name.
The most worrisome part to environmentalists is its potential degrading effects on the hundreds of acres of mangroves, which provide habitat, erosion control and flood prevention for coastal areas.
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The local Sierra Clubs and Suncoast Waterkeeper have already spoken out against the project, with a petition garnering nearly 1,000 signatures.
‘Destination neighborhood for locals and visitors alike’
“The Long Bar Pointe land is well-known and beautiful property in West Bradenton, fronting on Sarasota Bay and Coon Key,” project documents state. “The site is surrounded by water and magnificent mangroves, and these natural features will become one of the biggest assets of the future Aqua development.”
When reached by phone, developer Carlos Beruff said he had no comment on questions related to the project.
Aqua by the Bay, according to the development’s website aquabythebay.com, would preserve 98.5 percent of the existing coastline.
“Preservation of mangroves is a priority,” the website states. “Displaced mangroves will be replanted (mitigated) at a site where they will provide high environmental benefits. We will create a healthier sea grass bed and healthier overall ecosystem through a combination of a decrease in pollutants into the Bay, the revitalization of the mangroves by cutting out the nuisance species, the replanting of sea grass and the restriction of propeller motors through the sea grass areas.”
Agricultural and residential land uses, including Legends Bay to the south and Tidy Island to the northwest, surround the site. If approved, Aqua by the Bay would be the second major development built in this area, as Lake Flores was approved by the county commission in 2015.
Lake Flores, a 1,300-acre mixed use walkable community, is south of Cortez Road, east of 86th Street West, north of El Conquistador Parkway and west of IMG Academy. It calls for 6,500 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail space, 2 million square feet of commercial space and 500 hotel rooms.
“The Aqua project will transition well with the Lake Flores community as both projects will incorporate neo-traditional elements that provide for an efficient use of land,” project documents state. “Both of these communities are being planned to provide new options to the Southwest County area, which in turn is expected to spur revitalization of this portion of Manatee County.”
A gated development, Aqua by the Bay would have many neo-traditional components, featuring “a compact, pedestrian-oriented project with interconnected neighborhoods, a variety of residential units, a discernible central plaza and a mix of commercial uses, employment opportunities and public places where the residents will have opportunities to socialize and engage in civic life,” documents state.
Consisting of a variety of housing types, Aqua by the Bay will include multi-family building products — one proposed at five stories and the other at 10 stories over parking.
“The Aqua development will take advantage of the beautiful waterfront views complemented by elegant design and an architectural theme reminiscent of a graceful West Indies community to create a unique and stellar development,” project documents state.
Over the project’s 20-year buildout, developers say Aqua by the Bay will create hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, according to the project’s website.
“Bringing upscale retail, restaurant and office space will provide approximately 1,000 new permanent full-time jobs in the area,” the website states. “This will further result in an increased tax base in the area. Lastly, it is estimated that there will be tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for essential services including police, fire and local infrastructure projects.”
Long Bar Pointe legal action
The proposed Aqua by the Bay development is the second proposal for this property for which the development team has sought approval from Manatee County.
A subject of legal challenge, Long Bar Pointe was once planned to include up to 3,600 homes, 192,000 square feet of commercial space, a hotel, a conference center and a marina and navigation channel.
After Manatee County Commission in 2013 denied amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, Long Bar Pointe developers Beruff and Larry Lieberman filed an $18 million suit against the county over their claimed right to develop shore lands at the property.
The suit accused the county of enacting and enforcing rules preventing Beruff’s and Lieberman’s development company, Cargor Partners VIII/Long Bar Pointe LLC, from dredging land owned in Sarasota Bay and building amenities, including a marina and a sea wall.
But both then-Circuit Judge John Lakin and the Second District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the county on all issues in the case.
“The County has won on every issue in the litigation,” Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer said in an email to commissioners in February after an appeals court upheld a previous ruling that sided with the county. “The case is thus over. ...The County owes nothing to the developer.”
Concerns for a threatened shoreline
According to the staff report, the project is expected to impact 13 acres of its 264 acres of wetlands, where dozens of species of birds, fish and marine life call home. A little less than 5 acres of the anticipated impacted wetlands is for excavation of the “Estuary Enhancement Area,” which is an area between the suggested seawall and the mangroves that is said to create more habitat for fish and wildlife, the staff report said.
The Long Bar Pointe mitigation bank — which is a piece of degraded wetlands that an entity buys, restores and can then sell as “credits” for hundreds of thousands of dollars each to offset wetland impacts at other development sites — would be unique compared to others. Divided into two sections, it would be next to a development site and is planning for mangrove trimming, according to Stuart Smith, Manatee’s Sierra Club co-conservation chair.
Although the Florida Department of Environmental Protection gave notice of the intent to issue the mitigation bank permit in December, local environmental groups have called for an administrative hearing in September to challenge the decision. The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to decide to issue its version of the permit.
“Mitigation bank or no mitigation bank, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the impact on the ecosystem,” Smith said.
The most worrisome part to the local Sierra Clubs and Suncoast Waterkeeper, which are leading the charge in opposition of the development, includes the height of one of the buildings and proposed lagoon to be dredged in the middle of the mangroves.
First, Smith argues that the 10-story building on top of a three-story parking garage, for a total of 145 feet, is four times the legal limit and wouldn’t match the surrounding area. According to the staff report, however, the building isn’t expected to create any impacts and its size will be up to the board of county commissioners to decide.
But more impactful for the mangroves, Smith said, would be the “Estuary Enhancement Area,” involving building a lagoon and a seawall. Smith said it could cause something called “coastal squeeze,” a term used to describe coastal habitat loss near hardened shorelines like sea walls.
“If you can’t save your last best place, you can’t care about anything,” Smith said.