Manatee County Commission candidates clash over development decisions and the environment

BRADENTON -- Two Manatee County Commission candidates clashed Tuesday over environmental and growth management policies, which have become a flashpoint in the District 6 at-large race.

Incumbent Republican Carol Whitmore and Democrat Terri Wonder discussed wetlands protections, and their respective approaches to development, among other topics, during the Annual Conservation-Environmental Summit co-sponsored by the Manatee Fish and Game Association, Inc., and the Manatee/Sarasota Sierra Club.

Wonder, of Bradenton, was critical of Whitmore, saying she had repeatedly voted for projects harmful to the environment, while Whitmore cited her voting record over the last eight years as proof of her efforts to protect fragile areas.

The moderator asked each candidate what her approach would be to requests for development among coastal and shore habitats that support healthy fisheries.

"Very carefully," replied Whitmore, of Holmes Beach, noting developers have property rights.

It might be a different matter if the county could find funding to buy such land from its owners to protect it from development, Whitmore said.

"I think if they got their

money, and didn't deal with all that, they would take it and run," she said. ...I really think that if you gave them what they wanted, and didn't have to go through all the hassle of building along the shorelines, that they would do it. It's just that I don't think that we have, and I know we don't have the monies, to do what the developers are asking for.

"It's not like I don't care about the environment or what's going on."

Wonder said Whitmore "can talk the talk, but it's another thing to walk the walk."

She advocated a more stringent approach, urging the commission to "stand up to special interests" in order to prevent destruction of sensitive lands.

"That has not happened. Who are we trying to fool?" Wonder asked.

On whether the county is doing enough to protect wetlands, Wonder said: "We have seen many threats in terms of the decision-making about wetlands."

She cited the case of the controversial Long Bar Pointe proposed development in southwest Manatee County.

The county commission decision on plans for the project "would have paved the way to dredging and filling a major, major saltwater wetland, which would set a very, very bad precedent for this county and other sensitive territories inland and on other parts of the coast would fall," said Wonder.

Local governments elsewhere are adopting policies to provide financial incentives to discourage dredging and filling wetlands and to preserve agricultural spaces, Wonder said, suggesting Manatee should investigate such practices.

Whitmore characterized Wonder's view as naive and faulty, saying: "You cannot come to a board meeting and premake your decisions without hearing all the evidence, or you expose Manatee County for being sued. So I think you need to do your homework on that."

Whitmore said she was also constrained from discussing commission decisions about Long Bar Pointe due to pending litigation developers have filed in connection with the case.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.