MANATEE -- Manatee County commissioners face more of the same knotty problems in 2015 as they attempt to resolve longstanding deficiencies at the animal shelter and a legal case about the Long Bar Pointe development.
Also in the wings are exciting projects such as construction beginning next summer on a new, $83 million interchange at University Parkway and Interstate 75, transportation improvements along U.S. 41, and the possibility of a new water park in East Manatee.
Following a $53,000 operational audit of the county Animal Services Division, the commission is expected to consider a new animal shelter to replace its outdated Palmetto facility along with better staffing and a more efficient way to handle animal adoptions.
The controversy over how well the county's No Kill policy is working to halt the killing of healthy animals in its care, and the overcrowding of the county animal shelter grabbed headlines throughout 2014.
It was intertwined with a law enforcement raid last winter at an East Manatee animal sanctuary where the owners were later arrested and charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty and fraud. The case is slated to go to trial in 2015.
Sheriff's investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against county employees who sent animals to the private sanctuary over many years, but the report did reveal serious problems such as poor sanitation and lack of food and water for animals.
"My goal is to improve the Animal Services Division, to see if it's something feasible for us to do," said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, when asked what the next step will be.
The commission is still grappling with developers of Long Bar Pointe, a southwest Manatee County de
velopment that became a campaign issue for some incumbents during the November elections.
After a highly charged public hearing in 2013, during which the commission effectively killed the waterfront vision of developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman, the men came back in August with a claim under an obscure eminent-domain provision calling for reversal of the commission decision.
With hardly any discussion, the Manatee County Commission later took its attorney's advice to stand by its decision.
The board unanimously OK'd a written settlement offer without any concessions or compromises to developers of the property overlooking Sarasota Bay. The offer declared the board's position as: "No changes to the action of the government entity." An accompanying statement setting allowable uses indicated county Comprehensive Plan policies do not inordinately burden the developer's property.
Beruff and Lieberman may still file suit over the matter, however, County Attorney Mickey Palmer cautioned commissioners.
In October, Manatee and Sarasota counties officials cheered when the Florida Department of Transportation announced it intended to start construction next summer on a new interchange at University Parkway and Interstate 75.
The money will pay for a traffic system designed to handle increased volume associated with the new Mall at University Town Center and a new rowing center at Nathan Benderson Park, plus a growing number of vehicles traversing the Lakewood Ranch area.
"It's a good year for local transportation projects," said Dave Hutchinson, planning manager for the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Plans call for widening I-75 to eight lanes at University Parkway and construction of a diverging diamond-style intersection.
Also moving along is a project to improve U.S. 41 from 69th Avenue to Cortez Road, according to FDOT. Crews will be making intersection improvements and pedestrian-safety upgrades, including pedestrian refuge islands.
The area's first water park might be built in East Manatee County. County officials are seeking a developer for a new boutique-style water park incorporating water conservation and environmental sensitivity in its design, construction and operation, the Herald reported Saturday.
Officials will consider competitive proposals for the financing, development, design, construction, operation, maintenance and marketing of a "first-quality" aquatic and recreation complex near the intersection of Interstate 75 and State Road 64, according to a request for proposal officials expect to issue this week. The 20-acre site at 400 Cypress Creek Blvd., Bradenton, is part of county-owned Tom Bennett Park, where about 89,500 vehicles pass daily.
"We've gotten a lot of positive input from residents who believe that the timing and location are just right for bringing a destination-type recreational opportunity to Bennett Park," said Charlie Hunsicker, county director of parks and natural resources.
Asked when construction might start, he said all proposals from potential developers must first undergo careful scrutiny.
"We have to be certain we'll be working with a bona fide vendor, with both experience and financial backing sufficient to carry out a water park such as this," he said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.