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Bradenton officials defend Harbor Sound development approval

BRADENTON -- Bradenton officials Wednesday broke their silence on ongoing environmentalist accusations leveled by former County Commissioner Joe McClash.

McClash claims the city wrongly approved a plan for developer Pat Neal to build the four-home Harbor Sound family compound on 40 acres on the western shore of Perico Island.

McClash argues the city failed to follow proper procedures by not conducting a thorough project review. It should have been classified as a project development plan rather than a residential site plan review, which is somewhat less intensive, he claims.

McClash's group includes representatives of environmental groups as well as residents of the adjacent Harbor Isle, a 130-acre development completed last year.

During a Bradenton City Council workshop Wednesday, City Attorney Bill Lisch said he has several issues with the environmentalists' claims.

"They say we have to revoke the permit, but you just can't do that," Lisch said. "That would require hearings and requires due process."

Lisch said the review process through the Bradenton Planning Commission and city council was mostly identical so "even if it is a PDP, the city did that."

McClash could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

McClash also maintains the existing city wetlands survey is incorrect, but Lisch said those claims are based on a survey done by the opposition. He said the city could fund a new survey, but even if somehow the city's is incorrect, it wouldn't change the fact the city did nothing wrong by approving the site plan.

Lisch also said it's a moot point because McClash's group only had 30 days after the 2014 approval to file a challenge and failed to do so.

"You can't come back a year later," Lisch said.

The approved site plan calls for filling in 3.46 acres of submerged lands owned by Neal.

Lisch said it is a process for state and federal agencies, and not the city's responsibility, when approving a site plan for Neal to build. While acres of mangroves are onsite, Lisch also said enforcing mangrove protection was taken away from the city years ago.

Councilman Bemis Smith said the city has been reduced to a "hall monitor who can only tell on people" when it comes to mangrove protection, "and there are regulatory agencies that have that control and they are onsite."

Councilman Gene Gallo confirmed a Florida Department of Environmental Protection engineer inspects the construction process weekly. Gallo said it was interesting most people complaining about Harbor Sound also protested Harbor Isle, "and now they live there and love it. Maybe they don't know that they are living in an area that was built up four or five feet."

Gallo said people keep saying the city didn't do its job "but the things they are complaining about are for state agencies."

Environmentalists say the city set a dangerous precedent in allowing a developer to destroy sensitive wetlands by approving the site plan. Lisch said those comments were in reference to ongoing battles involving developer Carlos Beruff's plans for the Long Bar Pointe development in Manatee County. Lisch said it's simply not true.

"That's a false worry, in my opinion," he said. "They want the city to do something, but I don't know if there is anything to do."

Lisch said if a new survey does show work being done in protected wetlands: "The next step would be hearings or more than likely it would go to court."

However, he said, those are issues for other authorities.

McClash's group delayed Neal's water resource permit in June when a judge recommended the Southwest Florida Water Management District not issue the permit to begin uplands construction. The permit was issued in August.

State agencies are monitoring to ensure no work proceeds in protected wetlands until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides on a permit to allow Neal to move forward with the rest of the project. The decision has yet to be made.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.