Aqua by the Bay protesters voice concerns

Long Bar Point mangroves
Protected mangroves have been trimmed extensively along Sarasota Bay on Beruff-owned property.

About 75 people opposed to the Aqua by the Bay development gathered near its entrance on the traffic circle at 75th Street and 53rd Avenue on Saturday afternoon, singing songs and carrying signs.

Horns honked in support as they chanted “Nay, nay, Aqua Bay.” Signs said, “No mangrove destruction, election day is coming,” “Enough Beruff,” “Earth before profits” and “Save our bays.”

“How do they get away with changing the rules in the middle of the game?” – Mary Onna Bode

As the afternoon sun grew hotter, they gathered in the shade of palm trees, talking in small groups about a long list of concerns over the 529-acre residential/commercial project with 2,894 homes, including a five-story building and a 13-story building.

A drone was buzzing the eagle’s nest on the property the other day, scaring the bird off the nest, one said.

Representatives of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation, Aboriginal People of Florida, stood silently with their flag and feathers; the property contains an “archaeological area,” possibly containing Native American artifacts or graves, according to a Cultural Resource Assessment Survey conducted by Janus Research.

Some wondered how two Manatee County commissioners who formerly worked with project developer Carlos Beruff could be voting to approve or deny the project on Sarasota Bay on Thursday, May 4 at 1:30 p.m. at the commission chambers, 1112 Manatee Avenue W., Bradenton.

Cortez resident, business owner and former Commissioner Jane von Hahmann discussed current Commissioner Steve Jonsson’s 2011 affiliation with Beruff, as co-manager of Gold Medallion LLC. In 2004, Commissioner Betsy Benac worked as a consultant for SBC Development, headed by Beruff’s current business partner Larry Lieberman, when he planned to construct the previously-proposed project for then-owner Manatee Fruit Co. The highest buildings in that project were six stories.

“The issue transcends party lines.” – Jean Peelen

Unless the commissioners stand to gain financially from Aqua, they are required by law to vote on the project, von Hahmann said, “but they should be especially careful given their past association.”

Six of the seven commissioners, including Jonsson and Benac, have accepted at least $30,500 in campaign contributions from Beruff and his business associates (see related story).

Focus on mangroves

But the big topic of the day was mangroves.

Florida Statutes protect mangroves and require permits for their trimming or destruction. Commercial fisherman Mark Coarsey recently took photographs of the mangrove fringe to the south of the Aqua property, showing mangroves that had recently been extensively cut on Beruff-owned land. Requests by The Sun to DEP for information on the permit went unanswered.

“Don’t be a Carlos” – Katie Tupin

A former DEP employee that criticized the agency’s handling of the project was demoted from environmental administrator, a position she had held since the 1990s, to environmental consultant, according to Politico.com magazine.

Connie Bersok, a 30-year veteran of DEP, issued a memo for the project’s permit application that described her review of its proposed mitigation bank; the memo was never distributed by her superiors, then she was demoted, she told the magazine.

“That was the first indication that he (Beruff) was going to control what was done with that project,” she told Politico. “That was the clue. And things sort of went downhill from there.”

Cut mangrove branches have been dumped illegally in the bay, Coarsey said. Fishermen depend on the bay, known in the Cortez fishing village as the “kitchen,” for the propagation of marine life; juvenile species, including sea turtles, grow in the shelter of mangrove roots along the bay’s coastline.

Public meeting Thursday

A Democratic Club flyer inviting people to the protest points out that the developers propose dredging a lagoon and building a seawall landward of the mangroves, which will then suffer from erosion.

Holmes Beach Commissioner Jean Peelen forwarded the flyer in an e-mail, writing, “This transcends party lines.” At the protest, she held a sign saying, “Stop! Beruff is rich enough.”

The Sun’s written questions on inconsistencies in a county staff report on the mangroves and other issues were answered briefly by John Barnott, director of the Manatee County Building and Development Services Department in an e-mail stating, “This is an active hearing and I cannot allow staff to discuss most of this with anyone.”

To contact county commissioners about the project, call 941-748-4501 or click here for their e-mail addresses.