MANATEE -- The developers of Long Bar Pointe are trying to make the case that their vision for 463-acres along the Sarasota Bay will be better for the environment.
Developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Leiberman say their team of experts, which includes former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, are working on a written report on how they will save the bay. As they make their promises, Beruff and Lieberman have trickled out details of mitigation plans.
While the county commission will vote on a countywide text amendment that would give permission to build in certain environmentally sensitive waterfront areas now restricted, the developers are trying to show how their plan fits in to the proposed language, keying in on providing a "net benefit" to Sarasota Bay.
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As worded now, the comprehensive plan doesn't allow for certain projects in environmentally sensitive areas that provide net positive benefit to the environment, and the developers have requested that language to be inserted in the countywide amendment. The County Commission will vote on the matter at 1:30 p.m., Aug. 6 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd, Palmetto.
County government staff has recommended that the county commission vote against the text amendment because it is inconsistent with the state's and county's comprehensive plans, and the developer hasn't shown any material public benefit that staff could use for guidelines for proposed developments.
While the 463-acre mega development is at the heart of the requested changes to the comprehensive plan, the Aug. 6 vote will help shape Manatee County's future, setting a vision for the entire county.
The developers' attorney, Ed Vogler, said that environmental protection is important, but those policies need to be changed for their project.
"The policy limitations that are in here today are not well thought-out and tailored. They were placed there and nobody objected to them because there wasn't a project and there wasn't a constituency," Vogler told the Herald during a recent editorial board meeting. "There's nothing wrong with high level of environmental protection. It's perfect. It's wonderful. When it doesn't work right, when the words say the wrong thing, you have to change the words."
But local scientists say there is a constituency that wants to protect seagrass and mangroves.
"We have to be very diligent of protecting our mangroves because of their importance to fisheries production," said John Stevely, a marine biologist with the Manatee County Marine Extension Service, speaking in a Sierra Club YouTube video.
All of these factors would go into pushing forward the mixed use development featuring an 80-boat basin, five-star hotel, conference center, office, retail and enough residences to accommodate nearly 10,000 people.
Sights on Seagrass
One area of contention is the dredging of seagrass. Seagrass provides areas for birds to eat, fish to spawn and develop and for shellfish to start out, too. It also feeds manatees, an endangered species. The county's coastal element of the Comprehensive Plan has an objective to increase the seagrass acreage in local waters through protection and restoration, as well as a policy to prohibit new boat ramp areas that have insufficient depth or are built in sensitive habitats. Sarasota Bay has about a five-foot depth in parts around Long Bar Pointe.
To construct Long Bar Pointe's 80-boat basin, or an upland marina, 2,100 linear feet of seagrass would need to be dredged for a 60-foot wide channel at a maximum depth of five feet, Beruff had told a crowd at Cortez's Fisherman's Hall. That width has since been revised to 15 yards, or 45 feet, Lieberman said.
County staff reported that the developer's plan before the planning commission in May lacked information on how it would mitigate impacts on the 117 acres of privately owned submerged land where a significant chunk features "some of the most significant seagrass beds in all of Sarasota Bay" and is a fish and shellfish harvesting area and area frequented by manatees.
The proposed dredging would also be prohibited, according to staff, because dredging that would "adversely impact seagrasses" is not allowed, according to the comprehensive plan, unless the dredging is considered maintenance, which can be obtained through a maintenance dredging permit to re-establish old channels.
The channel debate will not be resolved until after a site plan is filed and reviewed. While Beruff has shown plans depicting a channel, county staff has not found any existing channels, said Doug Means, planning division manager for Manatee County Government.
"I can tell you based on our limited research of the area in general, we don't see a channel that has previously been dredged," he said.
If Beruff needs a new channel going through seagrass, it would be difficult to obtain an Army Corps of Engineers permit, said Kevin O'Kane, permitting section chief with the Corps of Engineers' Tampa Bay office.
"New channels through seagrass areas are difficult to permit," O'Kane said. "Seagrass areas are pretty much recognized as an aquatic resource of national significance."
The seagrass provides organic matter as food for marine life, stabilizes bottom sediment and improves water clarity, he said.
If an existing channel is the option, the Army Corps of Engineers has several options and limitations to consider.
One, is whether there are other channels in the area that would minimize impact. When boating activity would increase in the area, the Army Corps of Engineers have included stipulations to provide signage to alert boaters of shallow water and seagrass beds, he said.
"With hopes being that with signage up, the public would be aware of seagrass areas and take measures to avoid running aground," O'Kane said.
Mitigation is another option, where seagrass can be planted in other areas. The success of seagrass mitigation depends on the location and how the seagrass is being mitigated, said Paul Carlson, research scientist for the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
A seagrass mitigation plan is being worked on, Lieberman said. Where the seagrass would be planted is unclear as of yet, he said.
"We have hired three teams of environmentalists. One team we have hired is the same folks that did mitigation of seagrass at the Port of Manatee," Lieberman said. "They won national awards for what they did there at the Port of Manatee. We have hired that same team to oversee mitigation for seagrass for us, and we would expect them to do the same type of award-winning design."
Lieberman also argues that the area of seagrass that will be affected is minimal.
"There's also misunderstanding of all the seagrass that we are supposed to be impacting," he said. "We are only going to increase, or dig, a channel only 5 feet deep by 15 yards wide, just out to the existing 5-foot channel. It's a small amount of seagrass, and I am confident our experts in the field of seagrass mitigation will do as well a job as they did at Port Manatee."
The 2,100 linear feet the developers are requested to remove of seagrass is small compared to the 621 acres of seagrass being restored near the Port of Manatee through the widespread dredging there.
"To mitigate those impacts, [the Port] excavated a large upland area and turned it into a shallow water basin and created a condition where seagrass could be established and flourish," O'Kane said, adding that the area is working out well.
While some areas found success, namely Piney Point, a 2003 report published by Lewis Environmental Services in Valrico, focusing on the success and failure of seagrass restoration at Port of Manatee showed that "field observations during the sampling over the last two years demonstrate clearly that most planting units were unable to survive long enough to become securely anchored through expansion of their root system." Another site that was mechanically replanted had to be replanted at least three times unsuccessfully, according to the report. Overall, the seven mitigation attempts during the study largely failed, at a cost of spending more than $6 million, according to the report.
To further protect current seagrass, the developers plan a pole and troll zone where boats aren't allowed to use their motors, Vogler said, to avoid propeller scars.
"That means that boats would not be able to use power in grass flats that are shallow. Then we would be able to control and eliminate prop scars," he said.
Those scars happen when boats move through water that's shallower than their draft, according to the state's Fish and Wildlife Institute that published in 2004 an in-depth report on prop-scarring in the Charlotte Harbor region from Venice to Bonita Springs, one of the worst places for prop scars in the state. Manatee County's environmental policies include coordinating and implementing policies from the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program.
"The rate at which prop scars heal varies with location and the species of seagrass affected," Carlson said. "Under favorable conditions, shoal grass can recolonize prop scars within one to two years, but turtle grass can take five to 10 years because their underground stems grow slowly. In areas exposed to wind and waves, prop scars might never heal. In fact, without intervention, they can expand into large 'blowouts.'"
According to the FWC's prop scar study, turtle grass, which is the slowest Florida seagrass species for recovery, takes 10 years to recover.
Establishing a channel will not limit or eliminate prop scarring. The FWC wrote in its prop scar report that "channel edges are often locations of severe scarring because a high percentage of boats travel the channels with a minority of them actually missing the deepwater and scaring the channel edges."
The team flashed a placard to Herald staff showing an infrared map of prop scarring, explaining how the purple lines zigging and zagging through the waters are from boaters who already use the area, and their plan will help prevent further damage.
Another part of the plan includes destroying 225 linear feet of mangroves and trimming other areas.
"We've heard from multiple experts from Mote Marine Laboratories that trimming mangroves properly done does not hurt the environment, does not hurt the mangroves," Beruff said. Army Corps of Engineers permits can be acquired for excavating and dredging mangroves, O'Kane said. Using a saw to remove mangroves or trimming would be permitted under state and local guidelines, he said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has strict guidelines on the type of cutting, and how much trimming can be done. For instance, hedging is not recommended for red and black mangroves.
"Each species has different physiological strategies for dealing with salt water," Carlson said. "If the capacity of the tree to extract the water it needs from salt water is impaired by excessive pruning, the tree might die."
The trimming would be done to provide views of the water from the shoreline, and for boardwalk trails, Beruff said. Wedges of mangroves would be cut out for channel offering a clear view of Sarasota Bay, while another section would be removed for the boat basin and flushing channel, he said.
"They have to come down, depending on different areas, about six to eight feet, and you do that in measured steps," Beruff said. "There are some you can't do that. ... This is the deep part of the mangroves, the taller ones, the black mangroves, which are taller -- we won't touch that at all."
Lieberman said that the roots should be the focus.
"Remember, it is the root system of the mangroves that does the cleansing and treatment of the water, so we are actually going to make the mangroves healthier," he said. "The science and the experts know how to do that, I have read a lot of letters to the editor of people espousing knowledge of mangroves that don't have any knowledge. If the State of Florida and the federal government trust these experts enough to license them, then why don't we?"
The Manatee County Audubon Society is taking a top-down view of the mangroves, and said trimming is not a good idea. The Audubon Society is also making a list to inform government entities of threatened and endangered species their spotters have noted, which could potentially halt development on mangrove areas. Two species identified by the Audubon at Long Bar include the brown pelican and roseate spoonbill, which are both listed as state species of special concern.
"The birds that are nesting in those, they need to nest higher than six feet because they would be too close to the water," said Lorie Roberts of the Audubon Society. "Their little chicks are going to be bait."
The county has already approved development at Long Bar Pointe, including more than 4,000 residences and a shopping center, so the landscape along the Sarasota Bay is likely to change. Whether the project includes more intense development to attract boaters and tourists could depend on how the County Commission defines and weighs public benefit and net benefit to the environment. Of course, state and federal officials are also likely to weigh in as well, given the permits still required.
-- Herald reporter Sara Kennedy contributed to this report.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.