Aqua by the Bay decision provokes reactions

Aqua speakers
Former County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, front, and several other citizens provided limited public input during last week’s County Commission meeting. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

MANATEE COUNTY – The Manatee County Commission’s approval of Carlos Beruff’s revised Aqua by the Bay development plans produced outrage, disappointment, disbelief and relief.

After county commissioners approved the development plans on Oct. 3, county resident Glen Gibellina said, “Sold down the river unanimously, 7-0. Unbelievable. All that for absolutely nothing.”

Former County Commissioner Joe McClash expressed mixed emotions.

“It moved in the right direction today. The greatest win is we don’t have the threat to the environment like we did before we started the day. That’s a big concession,” he said.

His comment pertained to the elimination of a proposed man-made estuary that would have run the length of the property, between the coastal mangroves and the development.

McClash took additional solace from the environmental concessions the developers have been forced to make since 2013, when they reluctantly removed a proposed marina and navigation channel from their plans and then lost two court cases trying to get them back.

“We shouldn’t have had to go through this for four-plus years, but it shows this community’s persistence and willingness to step up and say this is not acceptable. The commissioners heard the community, and they adjusted their positions based on the facts and emotional appeals we brought to them. Without sending a signal that this wasn’t going to fly, we wouldn’t have got Mr. Beruff to change his mind about the environmental destruction that was going to take place,” McClash said.

“We still have upland habitats that should be protected, and there’s an eagle nesting on the site that they still haven’t identified on their plans. These buildings are going to look so massive along El Conquistador Parkway. We’ve worked for years to maintain Manatee County’s unique character. The Island cities have been able to do it with their 35-foot height restrictions, and we were trying to do the same in Manatee County. Unfortunately, we lost a little bit of Manatee County today,” McClash said.

He acknowledged the commission probably established a legal precedent for the 95-foot buildings when it approved similarly tall buildings for the nearby Lake Flores development.

When asked about a legal challenge to the commission’s decision, McClash said, “There’s issues that could be challenged. The question is whether it’s worth challenging those issues.”

Cortez concerns

Like McClash, Cortez resident Jane von Hahmann served on the county commission that in 2004 approved the original and less intense residential development plans for a project once known as Long Bar Pointe.

Regarding the Oct. 3 meeting, she said in an e-mail, “I was very upset with the process. They allowed the applicant to submit a plan different than the one previously submitted and reviewed. They advertised a meeting that would not allow public comment, and then after allowing the changes, they opened public comment. I believe there are challengeable actions. In a quasi-judicial proceeding, all parties were not provided due process.

“I am very glad for the removal of the wall and estuary enhancement area canal. I am glad the shoreline ecosystem will remain fully enacted. I see that as a major victory. However, the canal was part of the wetland mitigation plan, and we didn’t hear how those impacts will be mitigated in the new plan.

“The height and sheer number of buildings over 35 feet tall along the bay and El Conquistador Parkway concerns me. I am disappointed the commission didn’t see it as important to meet the intent of the land development code and require a preliminary site plan showing the locations of all buildings over 35 feet. I think the only way we the public will be heard is at the ballot box. We need to elect people willing to represent the people and not the developers who fund their campaigns,” she said.

Cortez resident and Swordfish Grill General Manager Bob Slicker said, “I appreciated the opportunity to speak out at the commission meetings. I’m proud they took the giant ditch and wall out of the plan, I’m grateful the buildings are not going to be 145 feet tall. Short of a new comp plan, I can’t see much more we could’ve done other than buying the property and using it as a preserve.”

Cortez charter captain Kathe Fannon is upset about the building heights, but finds some positives in the final outcome.

“Had the public not been as involved as we were, that marina would be built. The project would already be built and that ditch would be there. You can’t blame (County Commissioner) Carol Whitmore for this. It’s true what she says, ‘If you deny this, Carlos will take us to court and get everything he wants.’ ”