BRADENTON – Late Tuesday afternoon, Manatee County Commissioners voted 7-0 in favor of approving the revised Aqua by the Bay general development plans.
The approved preliminary plans no longer include the controversial man-made estuary enhancement area and retaining wall that would have stood between the coastal mangroves and the development.
Stipulations added during Tuesday’s meeting also require the developers to come back to the commission for additional site plan approval after the first 750 residential units are built, and after each additional 750-unit threshold is completed during the anticipated 20-year development process.
The approved plans still allow for 16 95-foot condo buildings and an unspecified number of buildings between 36 and 75 feet tall, depending on the real estate market over the 20-year construction period. The development is approved for 2,894 residential units and 78,000 square feet of commercial space. The plans also include a swimming pool-like Crystal Lagoon that is the size of a small lake and features artificial beaches.
As he left the Manatee County Administration Building, developer Carlos Beruff said he was pleased with the decision. He said he was glad the initial stage of the planning process that dates back to 2013 was over. In 2013, he reluctantly removed a proposed marina and navigation channel from his previous plans.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Glen Gibellina said he felt like he and the rest of the county residents had been “sold down the river” by the Manatee County Commission.
Former county commissioner and project opponent Joe McClash said he was pleased that the estuary area and wall were removed. He said he appreciated the developers and the county commissioners responding to the citizens’ environmental concerns about those aspects of the plan.
McClash said he was still disappointed with the building heights, but he acknowledged that was probably a forgone conclusion after the neighboring Lake Flores project was approved for similarly tall buildings. McClash also has remaining concerns about the wetland impacts now that the estuary canal mitigation area has been removed.
When asked if he anticipated a legal challenge to the commission’s decision, he said he and others would have to determine if that is a fight worth fighting in court given the concessions the developers have made.
Before casting her vote, Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she could support the project because the proposed 145-foot tall buildings were removed at the previous meeting and the estuary and retaining wall also were being removed. She said these concessions alleviated her primary concerns about preserving the integrity of the adjacent fishing habitat in Sarasota Bay known as “The Kitchen.”
Commissioner Charles Smith said he would support the project based on the concessions made and the evidence presented during the multi-meeting public hearing process.
Commission Chair Betsy Benac praised county residents and others for the information and expertise they provided during the several opportunities they were given to provide public input in recent months.
The commission collectively acknowledged their decision was not going to sit well with everybody, but that the developers have the right to develop their property in some fashion and it would be unrealistic for the public to expect the property to remain undeveloped unless the county purchased it.
Beruff and his attorney, Ed Vogler, offered to remove the estuary enhancement area from the plans soon after the meeting began Tuesday morning. Commissioners and county staff then had to determine if the proposed revisions were significant enough to warrant the meeting being continued to a later date.
The commission expressed a desire to finish the process that day, and a willingness to stay for as long as it took. Before lunch, the meeting was recessed until 3 p.m. to give the developers time to revise their plans and the attorneys from both sides time to work out the details.
During public comment Tuesday afternoon, several residents expressed opposition to a commission vote taking place that day and they requested the meeting be continued to a later date so they could further study the revisions proposed that morning.