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Hunters Point canal hearing continues

CORTEZ – Potential safety-related compromises were proposed during three days of hearings last week in the ongoing Hunters Point Resort & Marina dock permitting challenge.

The permitting challenge pertains to the environmental resource permit the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) issued to Hunters Point developer Marshall Gobuty’s Cortez Road Investments and Finance Inc. ownership group in 2021. That permit allows for the construction of 49 new residential docks along the privately-owned Hunters Point canal, including the replacement of 17 previously existing docks.

Hunters Point canal hearing continues
The proposed docks are to be constructed along the canal that surrounds the Hunters Point property on three sides. – Cortez Road Investments | Submitted

A month after the permit was issued, the Chicago-based MHC Cortez Village LLC ownership group for the nearby Cortez Village Marina filed a petition for administrative hearing seeking the permit’s revocation or modification in a manner that would reduce the proposed docks’ impact on the navigability of the canal for their marina clients. The canal is also used by guests at two nearby RV resorts and several canal-side homeowners.

While the hearing plays out, the construction of the Hunters Point docks remains on hold, but the construction of 86 solar powered, net-zero energy rated townhomes is well underway along Cortez Road West.

With administrative law Judge Bruce Culpepper presiding, the hearing that began on June 14-15 continued Aug. 11-18. The hearing is scheduled to resume, and potentially conclude, on Sept. 1-2. The hearing is being held at the SWFWMD office in Tampa.

Attorneys Susan Martin and John Fumero are representing Cortez Road Investments, attorneys Matthew Chait and Devon Woolard are representing MHC Cortez Village and attorney Megan Albrecht is representing SWFWMD, which issued the challenged permit.

While testifying, SWFWMD Environmental Manager Cliff Ondercin and SWFWMD staff member Lauren Greenawalt expressed their professional opinions that the construction of the Hunters Point docks would not significantly impede navigation on the canal, even if there are spots where two boats cannot pass each other and one boat has to wait for the other to pass.

While testifying, Cortez Village Marina General Manager Skip McPadden said the marina stores up to 365 boats a time, the majority of which are stored in dry slips. When cross-examining McPadden, Martin questioned whether the marina’s total of 365 dry and wet slips exceeds the allowance stated in the marina’s state-issued permit. Martin also noted the state permit does not appear to allow for the routine vessel maintenance and repairs that McPadden said take place at the marina. She also questioned whether the marina activities are currently permitted at all.

McPadden noted some boats stored at the marina and are up to 38 feet long and several boats are at least 30 feet long. He said the proposed docks could impede navigation for those larger vessels. He also said the Hunters Point docks could also potentially impede navigation for smaller vessels in some areas of the canal.

The marina manager acknowledged that the canal is the only way for those marina boaters to access the Intracoastal Waterway. Martin noted the canal is privately owned by Cortez Road Investments and Cortez Village Marina has no written or verbal agreement regarding the use of the canal.

Hunters Point canal hearing continues
The canal area highlighted in blue is owned by Marshall Gobuty’s Cortez Road Investments & Finance Inc. – Manatee County Property Appraiser | Submitted

McPadden and other witnesses said the primary area of concern is the western portion of the canal, between the humpback bridge over 127th Street West and the 90-degree turn at the northern end of the western portion of the canal.

Several residential docks and boat slips are already located along that portion of the canal and some of those homeowners are named in a civil lawsuit recently filed by Cortez Road Investments. The lawsuit seeks compliance with the Manatee County ordinance that states docks, boat lifts and other structures cannot extend more than 25% into the canal. Martin said county enforcement efforts are currently underway to bring those canal elements into compliance to create more navigable space.

When testifying for MHC Cortez Village, witness Pete Peterson referenced bathymetric surveys taken by surveyor Gary Bazemore. Peterson was among those who expressed concerns about the depth of the canal in some locations, particularly along the sides of the canal.

When testifying as an expert witness for MHC Cortez Village, boat captain Chris Karentz shared his belief that the Hunters Point docks would significantly hinder navigation on the canal. Under cross-examination, Karentz, like McPadden, acknowledged there are areas where one boat can pull over and allow another boat to safely pass.

Proposed safety measures

During the hearing, several potential safety measures were discussed and debated. Martin noted signs already have been placed in the canal asking boaters to use marine radio channel 9 to communicate with other boaters when approaching the 90-degree turn and any other blind spots. She also noted mirrors have been installed along the canal to improve visibility.

Martin said the revised Hunters Point homeowners association documents now require all Hunters Point dock owners to complete a boating safety course. She suggested the marina require the same of its patrons.

The attorneys and witnesses offered differing opinions on the effectiveness of marine radios, mirrors and boating safety course. It also suggested that some areas of the canal remain dock-free to created designated pullover areas.

Martin suggested one-way travel times during which navigation would be restricted to one direction at a time during half-hour intervals. She noted this would require the marina to stage their arrivals and departures accordingly.

When Martin mentioned possibly closing off the canal near the marina basin, Culpepper said that was not open to consideration. In June, the judge and attorneys all agreed that riparian rights and the continued use of the canal by non-Hunters Point residents is a matter to be decided in a civil court – and Cortez Road Investments has already filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to prohibit the marina and its patrons from using the canal.

Hinting at the possibility of compromise, Woodland noted the petition filed on behalf of MHC Cortez Village does mention permit modification as one desired outcome.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Culpepper will issue a written recommended order as to whether the environmental resource permit was properly issued or should be modified or revoked. The water management district’s governing board members will then make a final ruling.

Related coverage:
Canal-side homeowners served summons in Hunters Point lawsuit

Hunters Point dock permit challenge begins

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