MANATEE -- While much of the environmental debate has focused on the fishing industry, another segment of environmentalists wants Long Bar Pointe to go to the birds -- literally.
Jim Stephenson, president of the Manatee Audubon Society, fears the mixed-use development project featuring a boardwalk, boast basin, hotel and commercial development will devastate birding tourism.
Birding and wildlife watching is a $3 billion economic driver in the state, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Florida also has more people visiting to see wildlife than any other state.
"We have an extremely special place here. We get species during migration that you don't see anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line," Stephenson said. "They're on
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their way through and stop at Long Bar, especially, because it sticks out."
The opposition against Long Bar Pointe is a passionate group that has delivered dozens of letters every day to commissioners -- well more than 100 pages in the latest packet for the commissioners to read and far outnumbering letters supporting the plan. Opposing organizations include the League of Women Voters of Manatee County, Manatee Coalition for Responsible Government, Manatee Fish and Game Assocation, homeowners associations and even the Holmes Beach City Commission.
Developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman are seeking approvals to open up development to build a waterfront resort between Sarasota Bay and El Conquistador Parkway that would feature a hotel, conference center, a marina/boat basin, homes with docks, office and retail space.
But the developers say they will repair any damage they cause to the environment and that the effects of the construction, dredging and mangrove trimming will not be as drastic as the opposition claims.
The county placed several restrictions on the amended housing development in 2008, including no docks being constructed in Sarasota Bay and no trimming or cutting of mangroves. The developer also must plant trees at least 30 feet tall along Sarasota Bay to block the appearance of the buildings from the bay.
To complete the latest incarnation of Long Bar Pointe, however, the developers say they need to dredge a 60-foot wide channel through seagrass that would be 2,100 linear feet and 5 feet deep. The developers have flip-flopped on the number, citing both 15 yards (45 feet) and 60 feet in recent weeks.
About 5 percent of the mangroves would be removed, and in some areas trimmed.
"They have to come down, depending on different areas, about six to eight feet, and you do that in measured step," 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 at all."
Lieberman said the development will feature a boardwalk atop remaining mangroves with signage to educate the public.
"You can actually take a walk out in the mangroves, out to the water, and along the way there are signs about what mangroves do," Lieberman said. "It's an educational process and people learn why we must protect the mangroves because the state of Florida says it's a good public benefit."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the Bradenton Herald last week that there are ways to cut the mangroves that wouldn't have any negative effects on the water and soil. But birders are focusing on the health of habitats.
For Robert Dean, a member of Manatee Audubon, he can't believe that a mangrove trimming is being considered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service details in its mangroves information that different birds nest in mangroves at different heights.
"To say they'll all nest in one area is the stupidest remark I've heard in my life," Dean said. "Birds take different areas because they have different needs. Some of them are close to the water, and some of them are up high. If you start trimming them, you start destroying a large habitat for birds."
Documenting the birds for the project consideration can come from a variety of sources.
The county's staff report shows that the county is relying on the developers' consultant, EcO Consultants, to report whether there are endangered or threatened species on the land or any onsite habitats for nesting or breeding.
Within 12 months of development for any phase, the site is required to be surveyed for those species, according to county documents.
Governments ask for Audubon data on a case-by-case basis, but no long-term data exists for Long Bar other than a recent boating trip, said Mark Rachal, a sanctuary manager and staff scientist with Audubon Florida, who works on monitoring the Cortez bird habitat. The data he maintains focuses on nesting colonies.
On that trip, Rachal spotted a reddish egret, considered an imperiled species, and the roseate spoonbill which is on the state's threatened list, he said. The shallow waters make birding a challenge in that area, he added.
Complicating the case for the local Audubon is that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is reviewing its list this year of protected species, and certain species could be removed from the list, which is expected to be approved in 2015. FWC has proposed adding the Roseate Spoonbill to the imperiled list.
Manatee Audubon has spotted tropical King bird, brown booby, razorbill, common goldeneye and roseate spoonbills in preserves and secluded areas on the region's shoreline, said Lori Roberts, who is in charge of strategic alliances with Manatee Audubon. Those rare and protected birds need the mangroves and shoreline trees intact, according to the Audubon, because development along the Gulf has been shrinking those habitats.
Manatee Audubon doesn't have a list of birds at Long Bar Pointe because it's private land, and the only legal way to view is by boat, which most birders might not attempt to do, Roberts said. The shore birds would prefer those mangroves to be untouched, she said.
"Birds in general and shore birds don't like to be around humans. They want their own space," Roberts said. "That's why the birds want to be in these secluded areas where there isn't human traffic."
Long Bar Pointe, under current approvals, could build homes and a shopping center on the flat grassy lands, but those birds impacted have a much wider area for relocation, Roberts said.
If Long Bar receives approval to build a five-star hotel, conference center, channel, boardwalks and an upland marina that would mean removing mangrove forests, then it'll be bye, bye birdie, Manatee Audubon contends -- the birds won't stay for gawking tourists hanging poolside at the hotel.
"We want family tourists, we want birding tourists, we want conservation tourists, but you can't stop development. People have to live," Stephenson said. "But leave a little bit of room for the birds."
Tourism is exactly why Holmes Beach wants the county to deny the plan. Mayor Carmel Monti told Beruff during a meeting in July at Fisherman's Hall in Cortez that Holmes Beach has too many tourists and can't handle the traffic and people now. Monti wrote to the county commission that there isn't anywhere left for tourists to park, the infracture is overburdened on the island and he expressed concerns over the environment.
The League of Women Voters of Manatee listed eight objections to the proposed comprehensive plan amendment, including the effects on unknown future projects countywide, the inconsistency of the language with the county and state plans, potential interference with intergovernmental agreements to protect the bay and an erosion of public confidence.
The map amendment objections include the county's reliance on traffic impact numbers submitted by the developer instead of a site plan and identifying uses proposed for mixed-use, such as the marina, that would be inconsistent with current regulations and local development agreements.
The developers' attorney Ed Vogler discounted the environmental groups' concerns.
"Those voices are loud, and those voices are unfocused and they're emotional, but they're not really responding to the technical, professional effective responses that we have to do as part of the development committee," Vogler told the Herald.
Some opponents admit they are ardent amateurs, but say they rely on professional studies easily accessed on the internet. One resident attached a 46-page United Nations report on the importance of protecting seagrass, along with a 20-page report "The Ecological and Economic Failure of Florida's Mangrove Regulatory Scheme" from the Ocean and Coastal Law Journal for the commissioners to read. The journal is published by the University of Maine School of Law.
The opponents of Long Bar Pointe said hiring a certified scientist to bolster their opposition is costly. But they encourage commissioners to listen to the experts that work for the public: county staff.
"Staff reports are critical for the public," said Glen Compton, chairman of Manasota-88.
"This is the only way we have to obtain information about the project."
County staff said they take Manatee's environmental policies seriously.
"We're very strict about 'don't mess with the mangroves' and 'don't mess with the seagrass,'" said John Osborne, county planning and zoning official. "And if you're going to build near them, there is a buffer to abide by."
Osborne said it "wouldn't be responsible for us to go the other way," after the county has worked years and years to put the environmental policies residents wanted in place.
Revisiting comments made by staff early in the review, Doug Means, a planning division manager for Manatee County, called the conservation and coastal elements of the comprehensive plan the "backbone of our environmental protection policies in Manatee County."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.