Aqua by the Bay on life support

Aqua model
Joe McClash and Kathe Fannon present County Commissioners with a model that depicts estimated Aqua by the Bay building locations. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

BRADENTON – Carlos Beruff’s Aqua by the Bay development plans were on the verge of collapsing Wednesday evening when Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore suggested the vote be delayed and the meeting be continued until Sept. 29.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino opposed the continuance.

Sensing Beruff did not have the votes to get his project approved, and not wanting his most recent multi-year development efforts to die unrealized, Whitmore convinced Commissioner Vanessa Baugh to withdraw her motion to approve the project, which Commissioner Steve Jonsson had seconded.

Beruff and his attorney, Ed Vogler, accepted Whitmore’s suggestion at approximately 6:30 p.m., after eight hours of discussion than included four hours of public input.

Before the continuation vote took place, DiSabatino and commissioners Charles Smith and Priscilla Whisenant Trace said they could not support the project as proposed.

Trace, who comes from a farming family, said she could not support the development’s potential impact on the coastal mangroves or the estuary canal’s 13-foot retaining wall between the mangroves and the landward development.

“This is a very precious area. We cannot make a mistake with it,” Trace said.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore proposes the project review be continued. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Whitmore said she shared Trace’s concerns and her primary concern was preserving the nearby fishing grounds known as “The Kitchen.”

When asked earlier why he needed the estuary canal and retaining wall, Beruff said the wall would contain fill-dirt that would be used to elevate the entire property above flood grade, which would eliminate the need for buildings or single-family homes to be built on stilts.

Carlos Beruff makes concessions in hopes of salvaging his development plans. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Beruff also agreed to Whitmore’s request to eliminate any plan language pertaining to the previously proposed 145-foot tall buildings, and to not seek approval for approval for any buildings taller than 95 feet. Beruff also agreed to prohibit motorized vessels in the artificial estuary canal and Vogler promised to put in writing a promise to protect two Native American archaeological sites located on the property. These concessions will be further codified on Sept. 29.

With the 145-foot buildings removed, the general development plan now calls for a maximum of 16 95-foot tall buildings and an unspecified number buildings up to 75 feet tall as part of the requested 2,384 multi-family residential units Beruff hopes to build between Sarasota Bay and El Conquistador Parkway in unincorporated Manatee County.

While project opponent Andy Mele spoke during public input, former County Commissioner Joe McClash and Cortez charter Captain Kathe Fannon brought into the commission chambers a conference table-sized, three-dimensional model that illustrated the estimated locations of at least 83 buildings 75 feet or taller. Several commissioners and citizens praised the $25 model and said it provided more details than the developers had.

At meeting’s end, DiSabatino said she still had no clear idea how many buildings would be built and where they would be located.

Smith said he could support the project if approved in phases, but not all at one time because there was still too much uncertainty. He noted that once the commission approves the general development plan, the development process is out of the commission’s hands and solely in the hands of the developers and county staff.

The developers are also proposing 78,000 square feet of commercial space, a man-made Crystal Lagoon water feature, 30 acres of man-made beach shoreline, and they may seek state permits for private docks.

Wednesday’s meeting was a continuation of the Aug. 16 meeting. When it began, Whitmore and DiSabatino questioned whether the meeting should even take place because commissioners did not receive copies of an updated staff report until early Tuesday evening. In contrast to the staff report provided for last week’s meeting, this week’s staff report once again recommended project approval.