Support wanes for Aqua by the Bay

Carlos Beruff
Aqua by the Bay developer Carlos Beruff listens to county residents criticize his proposed development. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

BRADENTON – Manatee County Planning Commissioners and county staff reversed their previous positions and now recommend denial of Carlos Beruff’s Aqua by the Bay development.

On Thursday, Aug. 10, planning commissioners voted 3-1 in support of Matt Bower’s motion recommending the County Commission deny the general development plan and rezoning requests on Wednesday, Aug. 16.

The recommended denial is based on concerns about 145-foot buildings and the project overall not being consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan and land development code (LDC).

Planning Commissioners Al Horrigan Jr. and Tim Rhoades supported Bower’s motion. John De Lesline opposed it, but also expressed concerns about building heights.

Rhoades again chaired the discussion after chair Bill Conerly recused himself because he works for the firm that provided the traffic study. Commissioners Mike Rahn and Paul Rutledge missed the meeting.

In April, planning commissioners reviewed the project based on an inaccurate staff report that listed one 145-foot building and one 75-foot high-rise. By a 3-2 vote, they recommended approval, but it was then learned the developers were proposing four 145-foot residential buildings, up to 12, 95-foot residential buildings and an unspecified number of residential buildings between 35 and 75 feet tall.

Rhoades said he changed his vote because of the 145-foot buildings.

Aqua rendering

Bower maintained his previous opposition and cited concerns about building heights, the man-made estuary and retaining wall and the developers’ self-imposed inability to create a constant 50-foot wide buffer zone from the landward edge of the coastal wetlands. The developers want a variable buffer zone that averages 50 feet along the two-mile shoreline, but could be as narrow as 15 feet in places.

“I still can’t come to grips with how staff can say those scenarios are compatible with this area when it’s clearly not,” Bower said.

Horrigan voiced concerns about building heights, wetland buffering and the lingering possibility of a navigation channel for a marina or boat basin.

Staff support fades

Stephanie Moreland, the county’s principal planner, said staff had supported the project, but that support evaporated later in the week when an updated staff report recommending denial appeared on the county website. The staff recommendation cited inconsistency with the comp plan and LDC.

Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) board member and former County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann distributed an e-mail Saturday afternoon that said, “While we were out this morning rallying at 75th Street West and Cortez Road, it appears staff released their new report for Wednesday’s County Commission meeting. This is a big one.”

Public opposition remains

During Thursday’s meeting, von Hahmann, a Cortez resident, quoted LDC language that says an applicant requesting building heights over 35 feet shall, at public hearing, provide a conceptual architectural drawing, elevations and planned views that show the buildings and their locations. That has not happened.

Andy Mele presented an enlarged, modified version of the building location sketches the developers used to obtain Southwest Florida Water Management District permits. One showed only the 145-foot buildings and one showed only the 95-foot buildings. Mele’s combined rendition showed all the estimated buildings in excess of the 35-feet needed to accommodate the requested 2,384 multi-family units.

Dr. Randy Edwards expressed concerns about buffering, tidal flow, water stagnation and mangrove degradation. Echoing O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, Edwards said, “If it doesn’t comply, you must deny.”

Holmes Beach resident Barbara Hines said the additional traffic would negatively impact Anna Maria Island residents’ ability to get on and off the Island.

Vogler’s views

Beruff’s attorney, Ed Vogler, touted the development as “unique and special” and restated claims about no dredging through mangroves or seagrass and no impact on water quality, coastal mangroves, seagrass, submerged lands or fishing.

He objected to Mele’s use of the sketches and noted the nearby Lake Flores development was approved for 95-foot buildings and IMG was approved for an 84-foot building.

“We want to be treated fairly,” Vogler said.

Bower noted the Lake Flores and IMG buildings would be to closer Cortez Road than they would to Sarasota Bay.

Vogler also expressed appreciation for the county staff support that soon disappeared.