MANATEE -- A new urban service area designed to promote redevelopment in city-like settings in unincorporated Manatee will not include Cortez, Long Bar Pointe and areas surrounding Robinson Preserve.
The urban service area designation would exempt large-scale developments from certain state review if certain residential components and other uses meet thresholds. The designation is used because county officials say Manatee's review is more stringent than state review, but that logic does not sit well with several commissioners and a high-profile Bradenton attorney.
The commission approved the latest incarnation of the county-initiated urban service area Thursday by a 4-3 vote, with commissioners John Chappie, Robin DiSabatino, Michael Gallen and Carol Whitmore in favor and Larry Bustle, Vanessa Baugh and Betsy Benac dissenting.
This version of the urban service area is different from what appeared before the commission during the summer when it voted to transmit it to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for state review. Now, the coastal evacuation area has been removed from the urban service area, representing more than 3,600 acres along the coast.
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Attorney Ed Vogler, who represents developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman for Long Bar Pointe, objected to removing the coastal evacuation area because the 463-acre mixed-use development his clients propose is no longer exempt from the DRI review, prompting a more expensive and timely review.
"Applying a DRI requirement to areas that are already authorized for development in your comprehensive plan is simply punitive. It's simply adding to the expense in the process," Vogler said. "This proposal does not restrict development rights in any way. It just hurts the landowner."
Long Bar Pointe is already approved for developers to build 258 homes and 150,000 square feet of commercial space, but a new plan including 4,100 homes, an upscale
hotel, conference center and expanded office and retail center has not been submitted to the county.
"You should just adopt this as originally proposed," Vogler said.
Doug Means, planning division manager for Manatee County, said additional environmental review in a DRI process doesn't really help for coastal projects compared with other projects.
"I don't believe it adds any additional weight or protection," Means said. "There are other agencies that review, but they don't offer comments that are relevant."
So Vogler and at least one commissioner posed the question, if county review is better than state review, why make the coastal area development go through the process?
Gallen said the county has to put protections in place because over time, policies, as governors do, can change at the state level. If the state thought DRI reviews were worthless, they should have eliminated it, he said.
"There is a potential they could add more teeth to it, which is why I would rather have the sensitive areas outside of the USA so they would still have those DRI requirements if the state were to tighten it up or at least have applicants abide by those areas," Gallen said.
Bustle said DRI is giving the public a false sense of extra protection.
"I support the USA and concept of that, but I don't agree we should exclude an area for some vague reason we think that it would add extra protection," he said. "I agree that it sends the wrong message."
Benac added all the DRI does now is add expense for both taxpayers and land owners submitting these developments because of the added hearings and work to process the plans.
More than 3,600 acres are removed from the urban service area, which is in the coastal evacuation area, explained John Obsorne, planning official for Manatee County government. The main reason Osborne pointed to is to uphold the county's comprehensive plan goals and objectives to take a conservative approach to development to help protect Sarasota Bay and other coastal areas by dissuading certain types of dense development from taking place in areas prone to natural disasters and instead, focus on areas already served by a high concentration of infrastructure.
"The intent of the policies in the comp plan, I decided that a more conservative approach was necessary, and that's why we made the change," Osborne said.
Part of the change is based on comments by the Southwest Florida Water Management District that encourages local evacuation and emergency shelter plans in the coastal high hazard area before development occurs, but the district itself did not recommend to exclude the coastal evacuation area from the urban service area. The county already checks on evacuation plans for projects regardless of DRI or not, Osborne said.
Also, the urban service area allows the county to put a heavier emphasis into reinvesting in the aging water and sewer lines in place rather than encouraging more sewer/water connection and sprawl, he added.
"The 41 corridor and some other places we've talked for years about trying to do a better job encouraging redevelopment, but at the same time protecting. We better preserve the Whitfields, the Bayshores and those areas because they're very unique and special places," Osborne said.
Reviews for endangered/protected species and for Army Corps of Engineers will still be done in any development required to do so, Osborne added.
When a development, such as a 2,000-unit residential development, is proposed, it is considered a development of regional impact by state standards, thus triggering additional review. Individual uses such as hotels, airports, marinas and hospitals are exempt from the DRI review, but have their own review processes, said Sarah Schenk, assistant county attorney. The state has about 20 types of exemptions already in place for DRI review.
"This isn't an earth-shattering event here," Schenk said. "This is just implementing an urban redevelopment tool to maintain a competitive advantage with other counties."
However, if a hotel is part of a mixed-use development that meets the DRI thresholds, the entire project, along with the hotel, would be under DRI review, Osborne said.
"If you come in as a standalone, it's one thing, but if you're coming in as a mixed-use project, they still make you do the math regardless," Osborne said of the state process.
While Long Bar Pointe developers yearn to be included in the urban service area, IMG Academy is supporting its inclusion in the new zone. Obsorne used IMG, 5500 34th St. W, as an example of how an existing employer can expand its footprint and trigger a review for DRI.
"You can have a business that's been here for decades and been a major employer, and they can actually can grow and meet a DRI threshold, and go through a very expensive and extensive application process for getting approval for doing something they've been doing, perhaps, for decades," Osborne explained.
IMG is undergoing a campus expansion that will see a new field house and sports-performance research areas in the coming year, and Charles "Chip" McCarthy, chief financial officer and vice president of finance at IMG Performance, wrote a letter to the commission supporting the urban service area.
A five-phase general development on file shows that IMG also has pre-approval to build in future phases a second dormitory, five soccer fields, Little League fields, batting cages, indoor football field and baseball diamonds with bleachers and concessions and more. The plan also allows IMG to open itself to the public more for more sports and entertainment events, including a newly signed deal with Major League Soccer to become the official pre-season East Coast hub.
Yet, IMG would stand to benefit from Long Bar Pointe's five-star hotel, offering professional athletes quick access to the academy. If that hotel within a mixed-use Long Bar Pointe is going to come to be, it will see a lengthier review process for now.
Vogler told the Herald he has no opinion of whether his clients were unfairly targeted with the urban service area and has had no discussion of whether his clients will seek legal action to overturn the commission's decision.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.