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Hunters Point prevails in dock permit challenge

CORTEZ – Administrative Law Judge Bruce Culpepper issued a recommended order supporting the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s issuance of a permit for the construction of 49 canal-side dock slips at the Hunters Point Marina & Resort in Cortez.

“Based on the foregoing findings of fact and conclusions of law, it is recommended that the Southwest Florida Water Management District enter a final order granting Cortez Road Investment’s application for the permit to build a dock in the canal and issue ERP (environmental resource permit) Individual Construction Major Modification Permit 43032468.003,” Culpepper stated in the written recommended order he issued on March 7.

Hunters Point prevails in dock permit challenge
Administrative Law Judge Bruce Culpepper presided over the permit challenge hearing. – Submitted

Culpepper’s recommended order will be sent to the water district’s governing board for a final ruling. If the board’s final ruling supports Culpepper’s recommended order, the Hunters Points docks can be built in the man-made, privately-owned canal that surrounds the Hunters Point property on three sides.

Hunters Point prevails in dock permit challenge
This rendering illustrates the proposed Hunters Point dock locations along the canal. – Hunters Point | Submitted

Culpepper’s recommended order is based on the multi-day administrative hearing he conducted on behalf of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) over the span of eight days in June, August and September.

In June 2021, the water management district issued Hunters Point developer Marshall Gobuty and his Cortez Road Investments and Finance Inc. ownership group the environmental resource permit/individual construction major modification permit needed to construct the docks. The permit authorizes Cortez Road Investments to install approximately 4,352 square feet of new piling-supported dock structures and to replace approximately 3,631 square feet of existing piling-supported dock structures.

Hunters Point prevails in dock permit challenge
The Cortez Village Marina is located eastward and upland from the Hunters Point property. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Cortez Village Marina is located eastward and upland of the Hunters Point property. In July 2021, the Cortez Village Marina’s MHC Cortez Village LLC ownership group filed a petition challenging the issuance of that permit.

MHC Cortez Village asserted the proposed docks would adversely impact safe navigation and increase and impair vessel traffic through the canal by narrowing the canal’s navigable width.

During the hearing, MHC Cortez Village presented the testimony of marina manager Skip McPadden, Capt. Christopher Karentz and others. Cortez Road Investments presented testimony by Gobuty, land title expert Adron H. Walker, Captain Dane Fleming and others. The water management district’s witnesses included Lauren Greenawalt, who serves as a lead environmental scientist for the district.

The canal

According to Manatee County Property Appraiser records and testimony provided by Walker and Gobuty, Cortez Road Investments owns the portion of the canal that extends eastward from the humpback bridge at 127th Street West to the western boundary of the Cortez Village Marina property. Cortez Road Investments does not own the portion of the canal located directly in front of the marina basin or the remaining portion of the canal east of the marina.

Culpepper’s order notes the marina has existed in its current configuration since at least 2008 and a marina facility has operated at that location since at least the 1970s. According to McPadden’s testimony, the marina provides approximately 365 boat storage slips that include ‘high-and-dry’ slips, outside dry storage and in-water slips. McPadden testified the marina’s average boat size is 26 feet long and the largest boat stored there is 38 feet long and 11 feet wide.

The order notes the canal provides the marina and its clients with their only direct water access to the nearby Intracoastal Waterway.

“Consequently, to reach Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico by boat, marina customers must travel down the canal past Hunters Point,” the order notes.

The order notes there are approximately 18 single-family homes located alongside the canal and many of those homes have existing docks and boatlifts – most of which predate Gobuty’s purchase of the Hunters Point property and canal in 2016.

In his order, Culpepper states: “Mr. Gobuty conveyed Cortez Road (Investments) never authorized any homeowners along the canal to access or use the waterway it owns. Neither has Cortez Road (Investments) given the marina or its customers specific permission to traverse the canal. Mr. Gobuty urged that Cortez Road (Investments) does not necessarily object to boaters using the canal to access Anna Maria Sound. However, Cortez Road (Investments) does intend to take steps to ensure that its property interests and rights to the canal are protected, as well as ensure the safe use of the canal. Towards this end, Cortez Road has and may continue to pursue legal action to ensure that the private homeowners across from Hunters Point comply with Manatee County codes in the configuration and placement of their docks in the canal.”

Testimony given

The order notes Cortez Road Investments has already implemented several navigational aids to enhance the safe use of the canal. One-way travel along the canal at timed intervals is encouraged to help prevent boats from passing side by side in the canal’s narrowest areas. Mirrors were installed at the 90-degree corners to increase boater visibility. “No wake” signs require boaters to travel at minimum speed and canal users are encouraged to monitor VHF radio channel 9 regarding inbound and outbound canal traffic.

Hunters Point prevails in dock permit challenge
Safety pilings and new signs were recently installed in the canal near the Cortez Village Marina. – Hunters Point | Submitted

Regarding testimony he received, Culpepper’s order says, “Ms. Greenawalt best framed the analysis by acknowledging that the dock, and any boats moored thereto, will undeniably affect navigation through the canal to some extent. The evidence clearly shows that boaters will have to be mindful of a reduced navigable width when traveling alongside Hunters Point, particularly when crossing the three ‘pinch points’ on the north-south channel. However, Capt. Fleming convincingly explained that after the dock is built, the canal will still contain sufficient space for boaters to safely travel between the bridge and the marina.

Hunters Point prevails in dock permit challenge
Several of the 86 Hunters Point homes have already been built and some area awaiting new docks. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

“All witnesses agree that following construction of the dock, boats will still be able to freely travel through the canal one at a time. The proposed dock will not interfere with or prevent a single boater from traversing from the bridge to an upland property.
“The evidence shows that the dock will not reduce the safe navigational width of the waterway any more than the bridge at the entrance to the canal, which is 15 feet wide, or the narrow bottleneck just before the marina where mangrove growth restricts safe movement to one boat at a time,” Culpepper noted in his order.

“It is uncontroverted that the placement of the dock in the canal will affect navigation to some degree. However, the evidence was insufficient to conclude that the dock will constitute an environmental hazard to public health, safety, welfare or property. Similarly, the evidence and testimony do not show that the construction of the dock will cause more than a mere inconvenience to boaters similar to what they already face at the bridge, much less result in a significant impediment to navigation,” the order states.

“Based on the evidence and testimony presented at the final hearing, the undersigned finds that Cortez Road (Investments) and the district presented competent substantial evidence establishing Cortez Road’s entitlement to the permit. Conversely, the marina did not meet its burden of demonstrating that the district should not issue the permit,” Culpepper stated in his order.

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