BRADENTON – Manatee County commissioners have deleted a 2017 development stipulation that gave the commission and the public the ability to review the Aqua by the Bay development plans after the first 750 residential units are built.
During the county commission’s Thursday, Feb. 6 land use meeting, commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of granting a request from developer Carlos Beruff and county staff to delete Stipulation A.17 from the stipulations included in the General Development Plan unanimously approved by county commissioners on Oct. 3, 2017.
No longer in effect, the stipulation said, “Subsequent residential dwelling units, upon completion of the first 750 residential dwelling units, shall require further approval by the Board of County Commissioners at a public hearing prior to, or as part of, preliminary site plan approval, in increments of 750 units or more.”
Commissioner Steve Jonsson made the motion to delete the stipulation and commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Reggie Bellamy, Betsy Benac, Misty Servia and Priscilla Trace supported his motion.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore cast the only opposition vote after asking the commission to continue the public hearing to a later date to amend and clarify the stipulation rather than delete it.
Formerly known as Long Bar Pointe, Aqua by the Bay is now being developed on a 529-acre property between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay in unincorporated Manatee County.
Attorney Ed Vogler represented Beruff and Aqua by the Bay at Thursday’s hearing. He noted the general development plan was unanimously approved by county commissioners in 2017 and later withstood a legal challenge from project opponents.
The 2017 approvals allow 2,894 residential units, including up to 16 high-rise condominium buildings between 76 and 95 feet tall. The approvals also allow 78,000 square feet of commercial space.
Vogler said deleting the stipulation would not change the approved land uses, the density or intensity of the project, the building heights or the building locations.
Vogler said the stipulation was confusing for the developers and for county staff because of the words “upon completion” that could be interpreted to mean the developers need 750 county-issued certificates of occupancy before additional preliminary site plans could be approved.
Vogler noted the county staff report submitted prior to the meeting expressed similar concerns and stated staff supported removing the stipulation.
Vogler said 1,112 residential are already in various stages of permitting and permitting review with county staff.
“The Aqua by the Bay project is going forward. It’s under development,” he said.
Whitmore asked Vogler who wrote the stipulation.
“I think it was a collaborative effort,” Vogler said.
It was later noted during public comment that Servia proposed similar but more detailed stipulation language in the Sept. 15, 2017 letter she submitted to county staff. At that time, before she was a commissioner. Servia represented Beruff and Aqua by the Bay while employed by King Engineering Associates.
Whitmore noted the developers have the right to build 2,894 residential units with or without the stipulation.
“My intent when I approved this was that you would come back and submit another preliminary site plan to us,” Whitmore said of the vote for approval she cast in 2017.
“It wasn’t that you weren’t going to be able to get it approved, because you were, but to appease us as a board, to make sure everything was on the up and up – to oversee this a little tighter because of the environmental concerns that a lot of people have along Sarasota Bay,” Whitmore said.
Whitmore said the commission approval would not have been unanimous without the stipulation.
“Would you agree that all the stipulations, including number 17, got you the 7-0 vote?” Whitmore asked Vogler.
“Ultimately, yes. There were two commissioners that talked about A.17,” Vogler responded.
In 2017, then-commissioners Robin DiSabatino and Charles Smith shared Whitmore’s concerns about the lack of specific details contained in the general development plan.
Servia and Bellamy were not commissioners when the general development plan was approved.
Benac asked Vogler if the stipulation was added to comply with county code.
“There is no code requirement. To be brutally frank and honest, we were listening to comments made by commissioners and we were trying to fashion something that provided comfort and support at the time,” Vogler said.
“Your counsel warned you at the time,” Vogler said of the limited authority the stipulation provided the commission to review plans submitted for additional development phases beyond the first 750 residential units.
Benac said the stipulation seemed like a good idea at the time but it gives people false hope that there’s still an opportunity to stop the project after the first 750 residential units are built.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said she didn’t understand why the stipulation was included in the first place and Jonsson expressed similar sentiments.
Manatee County Principal Planner Stephanie Moreland said staff and the applicant were both requesting commission approval to delete the stipulation.
“The stipulation is unclear and it’s not working under the procedures that we are familiar with. I’ve never seen one that says upon completion a project must return to the board. Currently, there are 446 units issued, 316 units are under review and staff has had a pre-application meeting for 350 to 353 units. If we’re waiting for the structures to be completed and then come back with a preliminary site plan we’re too late in the process,” Moreland said.
Public input given during Thursday’s meeting did not sway the commission majority’s final decision.
Speaking on behalf of several Cortez residents, former County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann mentioned the lack of specific details contained in the general development plan that allows for up to 16 high-rise condominium buildings.
“We didn’t have a visual. We had a general development plan and that bothered commissioners. It certainly bothered the public because we had no way of knowing where, other than in the yellow area or in the orange area, these buildings were going to be allowed to be placed,” von Hahmann said regarding the 2017 approvals.
Von Hahmann referenced the concerns Commissioner Charles Smith expressed in 2017 about approving a multi-phase development project that developers said could take decades to complete.
“He couldn’t see himself approving something that was 20 to 30 years out. He expressed concern that the board is responsible for approving buildings over 35 feet, but the number of buildings is uncertain,” von Hahmann said.
“We’ve never seen any of the preliminary site plans that have been approved. If staff has anything that can show what’s already being laid out, maybe there’s a comfort level from us that we walk away from the stipulation,” von Hahmann said.
No preliminary site plans were presented at Thursday’s meeting.
“If the stipulation is providing grief because it’s not specific enough, we would ask that you go back to the drawing board and make it more specific,” von Hahmann concluded.
“The bay is very vulnerable. I think it’s very important that we maintain any kind of examination process on a big project like this,” Sarasota Bay Estuary Program member Jim Eliason said.
“Go back to the drawing board. The public does want to keep an eye on this,” county resident Dan Young said when urging the commission to revise the stipulation instead of eliminating it.
Former Manatee County resident Barbara Angelucci read aloud comments prepared by her friend Shannon Larsen, who could not attend Thursday’s meeting, and she shared her own thoughts too.
“A stipulation is something specified to or agreed upon in common – an agreement between opposing parties during the course of legal proceedings, legally binding and part of the record. Manatee County Zoning Ordinance PDR/PDMU 15-10 was duly adopted by the board of county commissioners on Oct. 3, 2017. This ordinance contained a number of stipulations that were promised, agreed upon and signed by Manatee County officials. Now, some 29 months later, the applicant would break their agreement, break their promise and break their binding contract with the commissioners and the citizens of Manatee County through their concentrated efforts to delete this stipulation,” Angelucci said.
“If Stipulation 17.A is allowed to be deleted, this breach of promise will set a course of action that provides this applicant and any other applicant the freedom of determination to delete additional stipulations that they themselves agreed to and promised,” Angelucci said.
“A promise is a promise, especially when it was made after hours and hours of deliberate and difficult decisions with input from the applicant, the applicant’s attorneys, the Manatee Board of County Commissioners and the citizens of Manatee County who should be able to trust their commissioners to uphold their promises and agreements and not fold to the demands of wealthy developers,” Angelucci said.
Former County Commissioner Joe McClash said, “Just for the record, we’re not getting notices as a public when things are coming through like site plans. I know the county has abilities to do that and this is one of those commitments I thought was made at the hearings – that we would be notified as height plans come in. Either that or we have to check every single week to see if the county’s received a site plan, which isn’t right.”
In response to McClash, Public Hearing Section Manager Margaret Tusing said Aqua by the Bay site plans are not available at the county website but can be obtained by making a public records request.