County commission OKs Aqua by the Bay in 7-0 vote

People stand in line to address the board as Aqua by the Bay development proposal goes before the Manatee County Commissioners Tuesday.
People stand in line to address the board as Aqua by the Bay development proposal goes before the Manatee County Commissioners Tuesday. ttompkins@bradenton.com

A proposed development that has been through the ringer, the subject of protests and a lawsuit, has come out the other side more than a decade later with the approval of the Manatee County Commission.

The commission unanimously voted Tuesday in favor of developer Carlos Beruff’s Aqua by the Bay proposal for development along Sarasota Bay in West Bradenton.

Commissioners voted after deciding that changes made to the general development plan on Tuesday — that they pushed for — did not require a new public hearing.

Its previous iteration was once called “Long Bar Pointe,” and at one point had boasted plans for a marina, hotels, condos and a conference center. Now, the 529-acre Medallion Home development between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay has transformed into a proposal for 2,384 multi-family and 510 single-family homes in addition to 78,000 square feet of commercial space.

Two major issues were noted during Tuesday’s public hearing: one about an estuary enhancement area and another regarding the proposed buildout phases.

Some commissioners and many members of the public had previously expressed their disdain for the construction of an estuary enhancement area between the project and the 2.5 miles of mangrove shoreline at least 20 feet wide and 8 feet deep, which would have served as the project’s wetland impact mitigation.

“I am happy not to build the estuary enhancement area, period,” Beruff said.

Tom Pride, county environment consultant, testified that if the estuary enhancement area was removed from the plan, the applicant would have to come up with another area that could be used as mitigation for the 13.29 acres of impact, said to be mostly low quality wetlands burdened with nonnative species. About one-third of the impacts are associated with the construction of the estuary enhancement area and are considered “temporary,” according to the staff report.

Assistant county attorney Sarah Schenk said removing the area from the general development plan could be a significant enough change to require a new plan to be submitted to staff and the board. Instead, Medallion Home asked the board for a 3 p.m. deadline to make the changes.

“I don’t care what you do, approve or deny,” Schenk said, believing that the county would be sued with either decision. Whatever they did, she wanted to make sure it was done right.

When the applicant came back that afternoon without the estuary enhancement area and an upland retaining wall, the amount of wetland impacts dwindled down to 7.93 acres. Instead of an upland retaining wall, there will be a transitional slope.

Previously, the commission had held a new public hearing after Beruff made changes to his plan.

During a Aug. 16 public hearing, Beruff told commissioners he would come back to the board for approval of any building over 95 feet tall. That required a new general development plan and the applicant came back before the board the next week, with a maximum of 16 buildings at 95 feet high and an unknown amount between 36 feet and 75 feet.

Schenk also advised that the plan, which touts a seven-phase buildout, and a stipulation that they return to the board for approval four times should be harmonious. In the first phase, the developer will have to get the OK for 750 residential units and the proposed commercial space.

In a sometimes heated, standing-room only crowd, about 20 people stood in line at the start of the meeting to suggest future agenda items to the board, advising they were interested in changes to the comprehensive plan related to wetland impacts and hurricane shelters.

After Medallion Home had come back with the changes, about half of the public remained. Thirteen people had the chance to speak during public comment, suggesting that it was unfair that others wouldn’t have had the chance to speak and asking that the proposal go back to the planning commission again.

By the end of the meeting, commissioners expressed that they were satisfied with the changes.

“The applicant has done everything I have asked,” said Commissioner Charles Smith. “I have no right to oppose this project based on who the applicant is.”

Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who was a commissioner when the Long Bar Pointe plan existed, agreed.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve done,” she said.

Stuart Smith, who is with the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club and is an opponent of the project, still expressed concerns over building heights

“Overall, I’m a little disappointed, but I’m very glad that we fought so hard and we got so much as we did,” he said.

But the “last untouched” Old Florida mangrove shoreline that opponents fought to save could be lost. The fight against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s intention to give the developer a mitigation bank permit adjacent to the property will be seen in front of a judge in December.

“The impact on the waterfront vista will be dramatic and devastating. It just won’t be the same place and people won’t go there for the same reasons,” Smith said. “It was something very marketable and it’s gonna be gone.”

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse