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Board rules in favor of Hunters Point docks

CORTEZ – The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s (SWFWMD) governing board has adopted a final order that allows 49 residential docks/boat slips to be built along the Hunters Point canal as part of the Hunters Point Resort & Marina development.

The final order issued on May 23 in favor of Hunters Point developer Marshall Gobuty and his Cortez Road Investments and Finance Inc. (CRIF) ownership group pertains to a 2021 permitting challenge filed by MHC Cortez Village LLC, which owns the nearby Cortez Village Marina.

Board rules in favor of Hunters Point docks
Eighty-six energy homes are being built as part of the Hunters Point Resort & Marina development. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

The marina and its clients use the man-made canal built in the 1950s and purchased by Gobuty when he bought the Hunters Point property in 2016. The governing board’s ruling allows the water management district to issue the environmental resource permit CRIF first sought in 2021. The permit allows for the installation of 32 new boat slips in the canal and the replacement of 17 existing slips.

Board rules in favor of Hunters Point docks
This map illustrates where the Hunters Point docks will be located. – Cortez Road Investments | Submitted

MHC Cortez Village has 30 days to appeal the final order. If filed, the appeal would be heard either by the district court of appeal in Hernando County where the water district headquarters is located or in Manatee County where the Hunters Point property is located.

When contacted by The Sun and asked about the appeal process, the water district’s Public Information Officer Susanna Martinez-Tarokh provided the information she obtained from the water district’s office of general counsel.

“The court of appeal would review the record of the administrative proceeding and would make its decision based on the evidence in the record,” she said. “An appeal would not necessarily prevent the dock construction from starting, unless the court of appeal enters an order requiring construction to cease. However, if the court of appeal overturns the final order, the dock construction may have to be stopped.”

Gobuty told The Sun he expects MHC Cortez Village LLC to appeal the board’s final order.

When challenging the original permit issuance in 2021, MHC Cortez Village LLC was granted an eight-day hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Bruce Culpepper. That hearing was conducted last fall on behalf of the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings (DOAH).

During the hearing, MHC Cortez Village LLC alleged the construction of the Hunters Point docks would impede navigation on the canal and negatively impact the marina clients’ ability to use the canal, which provides the only direct water access to the nearby Intracoastal Waterway. The canal provides similar access for several canal-side residential property owners who already had docks and boatlifts in place when Gobuty bought the canal.

The governing board’s monthly meeting took place at the water district’s Tampa office.

SWFWMD attorney Chris Tumminia told the board members they were engaging in a quasi-judicial process that did not allow for any new testimony or public input. Tumminia said the board’s ruling could only be based on the official records of the case they received before their meeting, including the recommended order Culpepper issued on March 7.

SWFWMD attorney Jennifer Soberal then reviewed for the board members the salient points of the DOAH hearing and Culpepper’s previous factual findings and conclusions of law, which were based on the evidence, testimony and legal arguments presented to him.

“The applicant (CRIF) and the district demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence the applicant’s entitlement to the ERP (environmental resource permit),” Soberal said. “The applicant provided the district with reasonable assurance in its permit application that constructing the dock is not contrary to the public interest. While the administrative law judge concluded the dock project will impede boat traffic to a certain extent, competent substantial evidence and testimony further established that any impediment will not be significant. The challenger failed to carry its burden of ultimate persuasion that the ERP should not be issued to the applicant.”

Before the governing board made its ruling, the attorneys representing CRIF and MHC Cortez Village were given three minutes to address the board. CRIF attorney Susan Martin noted the permit challenge pertained to a privately-owned canal and that the Hunters Point docks will not extend more than 9% into the canal.

“Your staff testified that this development was not contrary to the public interest and would not substantially impede navigation,” she said.

MHC Cortez Village attorney Matthew Chait said, “This is a very narrow and shallow canal and, when they add docks on one side it’s obviously going to make it narrower. The judge concluded in his proposed order that boats in this canal need at least 3.5 feet of depth to navigate, but the range of depths on the non-project side tops out at 3.2 feet. There is literally not enough depth for a boat to pull off on the non-project side, which is why we asked for the permit to be modified to remove some slips.”

Board rules in favor of Hunters Point docks
The owners of the Cortez Village Marina unsuccessfully challenged a permit that allows the Hunters Point docks to be built. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

With no further board discussion, the board approved the proposed final order and the issuance of the environmental resource permit that allows the Hunters Point docks to be built.

In 2022, in response to MHC Cortez Village’s permit challenge, CRIF filed a still-pending civil lawsuit seeking a court order that would prevent Cortez Village Marina clients from using the privately-owned canal.

CRIF also filed a separate and still pending civil lawsuit against several canal-side residential property owners which alleges that their docks and boat lifts violate Manatee County code by extending more than 25% into the canal. Those property owners dispute those allegations.

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