Changing the rules in mid-stream

Aqua by the Bay protest
- Cindy Lane

One of the protestors at the Aqua by the Bay rally on Saturday voiced a concern that’s being discussed at bars, on beaches and in boats – “How do they get away with changing the rules in the middle of the game?”

The state of Florida and Manatee County have laws regulating development, mangrove trimming and destruction, dredge and fill operations and seawall construction.

Yet, at Aqua by the Bay, it appears that height restrictions don’t matter. Mangroves can be trimmed, and potentially destroyed, without permits. “Excavation” is substituted for “dredging” in project reports, “retaining wall” is substituted for “seawall,” “Enhancement area” is substituted for “borrow pit,” and everyone nods and winks that the two are different.

Aqua’s plan to excavate dry land landward of the mangroves and create an “enhancement area” will leave a two-mile strip of mangroves with water on both sides of them. That’s not how those mangroves are growing – they are attached to land on one side, with roots in the water on the other side.

The county staff report states that the enhancement area’s construction could cause sediment transfer, which could undermine the mangroves at their roots, then inexplicably recommends that the county commission approve the plan.

It’s almost as though a page is missing from the report that would tie the two contradictory statements together. But all the pages are there. Apparently, you have to read between the lines to determine what the report really means.

That flies in the face of the public’s First Amendment right to know.

The Sun’s request for information from the county to explain several apparent inconsistencies in the report was met with a demand for written questions last month, an unusual requirement, but not unreasonable. However, the reply to the written questions was unreasonable – since the project is pending before the commission, no one on the staff is allowed to respond to the questions.

If you can’t get the answers to questions before the decision is made, what good is it to get the answers later?

If everything in the plan is open, legal and above board, why wouldn’t commissioners simply answer the questions of a newspaper, or Saturday’s protestors, or those of the people who are going to pack the county commission chambers in downtown Bradenton on Thursday at 1:30 p.m.?

Certainly a lot is at stake for the private property owners who have a right develop their land. But a lot is at stake for the commercial fishermen, recreational boaters, tourists who love to see the highly-touted “Old Florida,” and the county’s electorate.

We encourage commissioners to do the right thing and address the concerns of the people with honest, complete answers to their questions, including, “How can they change the rules in the middle of the game?”

Because if the game is fixed, the masquerade needs to stop before we lose this natural treasure.