LONG BAR POINTE -- The developers of a proposed mixed-use West Manatee subdivision lost a legal challenge over their claimed right to develop shore lands when a Manatee County judge ruled Tuesday their $18 million suit against the county lacked merit under state law.
Late in the day, Judge John Lakin filed an order with the 12th Circuit Court that ends, at least for now, a legal effort by Long Bar Pointe developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman to invalidate rules precluding them from developing the waterfront at their 522-acre West Manatee property. Lakin also ruled the developers are not entitled to be paid for what they characterized as lost use of underwater lands on the property.
Lakin's final summary judgment comes little more than a month after he presided over a bench trial in which developers' lawyers faced off against county legal staff. 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.
Made public at day's end, the decision states the plaintiffs' suit comes too late having been filed 21 years after the statute of limitations applicable to the county's 1989 comprehensive land use plan expired. It also repudiates the plaintiff argument their right to dredge and build at the shoreline is constitutionally protected. The plaintiffs bought their land at Long Bar Pointe in 2012.
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Talking about the decision after it was announced at a Council of Governments meeting in Palmetto, County Attorney Mickey Palmer said Lakin affirmed the county enforced its rules properly. He was also thankful the decision protects the county from financial harm and its waters from development.
"I am a bit emotional, frankly," Palmer said. "The judge has ruled in the county's favor in every issue at stake."
The suit stemmed from an August 2013 decision by the Manatee County Board of Commissioners to decline to amend provisions of the county comp plan at the developers' request. Lacking the amendments, the developers were unable to move ahead with plans to built a waterfront hotel, marina and shoreline retail as part of a 3,600-home project on the shores of Sarasota Bay.
The developers' legal challenge filed in October sought to change county rules related to shoreline development or, barring that, to award millions to the developer as compensation for not being able to build at and beyond the shoreline.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who was on the board for the 2013 vote, said she was relieved the court ruled in the county's favor.
"I'm speechless," she said. "Obviously the county commission voted in the way they thought was best for county as a whole. I'm glad that's at least over and we can move forward."
Lakin turned aside every argument the plaintiffs' attorneys made. Responding to their assertion the developers have the right to develop underwater lands generally protected from such activity, he said constitutionally guaranteed rights are limited to access to the water, reasonable use of the water and to have an unobstructed view of the water. Beyond that, he said, Manatee County has the power to protect its coastal resources.
The ruling also made clear, by enacting policies protecting water and shoreline resources from certain activities and development, the county is not guilty of "taking" property from its owner.
"The comprehensive plan allows ample opportunities for the plaintiffs and other similarly situated property owners to put their property to reasonable use," he wrote.
Beruff's and Lieberman's attorney, S. William Moore, did not respond immediately to a request to comment on Lakin's decision.
Palmer said the plaintiffs have 30 days to file an appeal with Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
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.
Cargor Partners VIII/Long Bar Pointe LLC of Bradenton has since submitted a new general development plan for the property. Named Aqua by the Bay, the subdivision would contain nearly 3,200 homes and apartment units. The new plan deletes the marina, hotel, conference center and much of the commercial development present in the original Long Bar application.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter
Herald Manatee County reporter Claire Aronson contributed to this story.