After nearly six hours of presentations and public comment, Manatee County commissioners have decided to refer the controversial Aqua by the Bay development back to the planning commission due to a miscommunication of the number of buildings proposed.
Before a full commission chambers, with an overflow crowd on the fourth floor of the Manatee County Administrative Building as well as other areas, commissioners began the hearing Thursday afternoon on developer Carlos Beruff’s latest proposal to develop 529 acres between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay, just to the south of 53rd Avenue West.
But two sentences in the staff report — which the county planning commission and staff had recommended approval of plans to build 2,894 homes — were misinterpreted from the applicant’s proposal: “Two multi-story buildings, with heights greater than 35 feet, for multi-family residences are proposed,” page seven of the staff report reads. “One building is 75 feet tall and five stories; the other building is 145 feet tall and thirteen stories (10 stories over parking).”
“We have two building types,” Ed Vogler, the attorney representing Beruff, clarified Thursday. “I’ve not read it to be two buildings, and I thought that would be a wrong impression. ...We do not know how many buildings. That is subject to later designs.”
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Manatee County planner Stephanie Moreland said staff members thought it was just two buildings.
“During the course of the review, that’s what we thought,” she said Thursday.
Commissioner Charles Smith said he is concerned about uncertainty on the number of tall buildings.
“That’s what’s troubling to me right now,” he said.
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino agreed: “That’s the one major thing that I’m having concerns about.”
At the start of the hearing, Commissioner Carol Whitmore announced that she would be abstaining from voting because her son-in-law, Scott Rudacille, is involved in the project.
“I do plan to participate in the discussion but cannot deliberate,” Whitmore said. “That’s the best way until we get an ethics opinion.”
In addition to multi-family and single-family dwellings, the applicant is asking for approval of a general development plan for a large project consisting of a 78,000-square-feet commercial retail neighborhood, recreational amenities like estuary enhancement areas and private docking facilities, according to the staff report.
“There isn’t really anything like this,” Vogler said. “The idea is we are creating a unique project. ... People embark on an enterprise like this to make it unique and special.”
Assistant County Attorney Sarah Schenk told commissioners that the county doesn’t have jurisdiction over dredging and mitigation banks. County officials also do not control stipulations in permits for the state Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other state or federal agencies, she added.
As part of Aqua by the Bay, there would be no water quality, mangrove or sea grass impacts, Vogler said. They have eight permits from Southwest Florida Water Management District “to make sure that the vision that we have for the development of this project is permittable,” he added.
“There are very minor impacts of degraded wetlands,” he said. There are 13.07 acres of proposed wetland impacts.
Out of the 80 people who signed up to speak during public comments, 14 were able to reach the lectern; all speakers opposed the proposal. Their reasons included the lagoon between the mangroves and the uplands combined with a seawall could kill the mangroves; the proposed building heights would change the culture of the Cortez fishing village; and the development could harm wildlife living in and around the shoreline. It’s the last pristine mangrove shoreline on Sarasota Bay, and opponents believe the development would destroy it forever.
Captain Kathe Fannon, who frequents the shoreline for her charter business, suggested a new name for the development.
“This is ‘Awkward by the Bay,’ ” she said.
If eventually 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 has all the same issues as the Aqua by the Bay property yet they have a room full of people in opposition, Vogler said.
“They are exactly the same issues,” he said. “It’s frustrating a little to us.”
The 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, Aqua by the Bay’s previous iteration, called 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 the 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.
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.
Schenk said there could be a potential legal basis for a challenge because there is a possibility that the planning commission was confused as to how many buildings were proposed, not the types. A solution was to remand the proposal to the planning commission again — which all commissioners agreed to — with Whitmore abstaining from the vote.
Chairwoman Betsy Benac asked to have more information from the applicant — specifically, how many buildings the applicant will build, how high they will be and where they will be in relation to the shoreline.
Beruff came up to the lectern to ask for the planning commission hearing to be expedited. A date has not yet been set for the planning commission.
Sandra Ripberger, the conservation chair of Manatee County Sierra Club chapter, said there were many points of the proposal put before the commission that didn’t add up.
“I’m happy it wasn’t approved, but I really think it should have been denied,” she said after the meeting adjourned.