FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
The taller mangroves to the left were not trimmed and provide a point of comparison for the Aqua mangroves that were recently trimmed. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

MANATEE COUNTY – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is investigating complaints about mangrove trimming along the Aqua development’s shoreline.

Formerly known as Long Bar Pointe and Aqua by the Bay, the Aqua property is located in unincorporated Manatee County between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay.

The Aqua property is owned by Carlos Beruff’s Cargor Partners VIII/Long Bar Pointe LLLP and is being developed by Beruff’s Medallion Home development company.

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
The Aqua community is being developed along El Conquistador Parkway. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

On April 19, FDEP Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta provided The Sun with the following email response regarding the mangrove trimming complaints the agency received.

“The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is investigating reports of mangrove trimming waterward of Aqua by The Bay. For context, these mangroves are managed by Long Bar Pointe, LLLP. Long Bar Pointe is a permitted mitigation bank and has an approved mangrove trimming plan. Since the property is privately owned, permission for site access is required prior to inspecting the property and DEP has been working to obtain this. At this time, our investigation is active and ongoing.”

Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and board member Justin Bloom is among those monitoring the investigation.

“I’ve reviewed the file on the state’s Oculus site. There have been several complaints of unpermitted mangrove trimming,” Bloom said.

Bloom has also been in contact with FDEP attorney Kirk White.

When contacted Sunday afternoon, Bloom said, “I learned late Friday afternoon from Kirk that they finally have an agreement to obtain access to the property and they’re going to be doing an onsite investigation on Tuesday. I’m glad to see DEP is finally getting onsite. I hope they do a thorough investigation; and if there are violations, I hope they adequately enforce them.”

FDEP letter

Kuchta’s email response included a copy of a letter FDEP Submerged Lands and Environmental Resources Coordination Program Administrator Timothy Rach sent to a Mr. Hoffman (first name not provided) on Oct. 2, 2019.

“The FMTP shall not allow any mangrove trimming below a height of 12 feet, as measured from the substrate, shall not allow for more than 30% of the total onsite mangrove acreage to be trimmed and shall not result in fragmentation of the remaining intact mangrove swamp into more than four individual fragments,” the letter states.

FDEP correspondence

Kuchta also shared a link to the online Oculus portal that provides access to additional documents and email exchanges pertaining to Aqua’s mangrove trimming authorizations and activities.

On Feb. 22, FDEP Southwest District Compliance Coordinator Derrick Hudson emailed Medallion Home Vice President of Land Operations Robb Bosarge and notified him that FDEP received an email from a citizen concerned about the mangrove trimming at the Aqua property.

Hudson’s email noted the Long Bar Pointe mitigation bank permit requires the property owner or his representatives to provide FDEP with 48 hours advance notice before any mangrove trimming occurs. The permit also requires photographs to be taken and submitted to FDEP 14 days before the trimming activity begins and subsequent photographs taken and submitted within 14 days after the trimming activity occurs. The permit also requires a site visit by FDEP staff within 30 days of the trimming.

“Please provide the status and any additional information associated with this season’s trimming activity. In addition, we would like to schedule a site visit to assess the area,” Hudson said in his email to Bosarge.

The FDEP records posted online do not include an email response from Bosarge.

On March 8, Hudson emailed FDEP attorney Kirk White.

“We received a complaint regarding possible unauthorized mangrove trimming in the Long Bar Pointe mitigation bank. Is there any way you could reach out to their attorney and open communication and/or see if they have appropriate contact information for a representative?” Hudson’s email said.

On March 9, Hudson emailed White again.

“I would like to conduct a site visit. Typically during this time of year, the mitigation bank conducts authorized mangrove trimming. However, I did not receive commencement notification as required by the permit,” Hudson wrote.

On March 11, White emailed attorney Doug Manson.

“Southwest District got a complaint about unauthorized mangrove trimming at the Long Bar Pointe mitigation bank. Derrick has tried to contact Mike Campbell and Rob Borsarge to arrange a visit but has not heard back. Any chance you could provide the OK for Derrick to get out at some point in the near future and check things out?” White’s email said.

In his March 11 response, Manson said, “I am glad to help facilitate a site visit with Derrick.”

That site visit was not arranged until late last week.

On April 18, Hudson emailed a complaint timeline to FDEP Environmental Resources Program staff member Hannah Westervelt. According to the timeline, FDEP received an email from a concerned citizen on Feb. 15, an online complaint from Manatee County resident Karen Willey on Feb. 22 and an anonymous complaint on April 4.

“The emails reveal a couple things,” Bloom said. “Most significantly, it appears that there’s a violation of their mangrove mitigation bank permit. That permit requires that they notify DEP prior to commencement of any trimming. Not only are they supposed to notify DEP, but they’re supposed to provide photos indicating existing conditions prior to trimming so they can compare what was there before trimming and what’s there after. It looks like they didn’t do that; and it looks like there’s been some very dramatic trimming, beyond what would be permitted in a mangrove mitigation bank permit or the general permit which would cover the mangroves at Long Bar Pointe (Aqua). I think there are likely to be violations of how and where they trimmed and then there’s the procedural violation which it seems like DEP has acknowledged in their email chain.”

Aqua attorney’s response

Edward Vogler II has long served as an attorney for Beruff and he represented Beruff and the development team during the lengthy Long Bar Pointe/Aqua by the Bay permitting process that dates back more than a decade.

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
Several multi-unit residential structures are being built on the Aqua property. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Vogler was contacted by The Sun on Friday.

“The landowner/developer is aware of the complaints and has been in contact with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and welcomes any type of investigation or inspection. All the work done in connection with mangrove trimming is done by certified mangrove trimming experts under the supervision of environmental consultants. They have the tools and the technology and they understand and follow the trimming rules and criteria. All work is done pursuant to proper permits. We welcome the investigation and I think it will be confirmed that everything was done properly,” Vogler said.

“There are general permits that allow mangrove trimming under certain conditions and circumstances and there are specific permits required for given circumstances. That property also has a permitted mitigation bank in which various other types of permits and authorizations were afforded to the property. I’m very confident that any trimming was done under one or more permits,” Vogler said.

He also referenced the previously trimmed mangroves along a portion of the adjacent shoreline of Legends Bay by Medallion Home.

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
The mangroves at the adjacent Legends Bay by Medallion Home community are maintained at a height similar to the recently-trimmed Aqua mangroves. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

“Those mangroves are trimmed every year and multiple complaints have been made about that. People get upset when they see mangroves trimmed but that’s an authorized practice in the state of Florida and it’s routinely done. Those mangroves over there have been cut for 15 years,” Vogler said.

Regarding FDEP’s requests to inspect the Aqua mangroves, Vogler said, “I’m not aware of any request being denied or delayed.”

Citizens’ concerns

Suncoast Waterkeeper Chairman and The Sun’s Outdoors Editor Rusty Chinnis is concerned about Aqua’s mangrove trimming.

On April 15, Chinnis said, “I was out fishing one day and noticed it so I called FDEP. The lady I talked to, Abigail McAleer, said someone reported it back in February but FDEP couldn’t go on the property without getting permission from the owners. I’m not accusing anybody of anything but it looks suspicious and it needs to be investigated.”

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
The FDEP graphic highlights some of Florida’s mangrove trimming regulations. – FDEP | Submitted

Chinnis referenced FDEP’s mangrove trimming guidelines and best management practices. According to that 2016 document, trimming mangroves that are over 24 feet tall requires a FDEP permit; and when trimming a mangrove tree that’s over 16 feet tall, no more than 25% of the tree can be removed per year.

“That first cutting they did looks like it’s about 50%,” Chinnis said.

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
The taller mangroves on the left were not trimmed. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

According to the FDEP trimming guidelines, a first trimming violation may result in the property owner being required to restore the area. For subsequent violations, property owners and the person performing the illegal trimming can be fined up to $100 for each mangrove illegally trimmed and up to $250 for each mangrove illegally altered.

I’m not against development. I was a building contractor for 35 years, but I’m also a fisherman and I appreciate the importance of the natural environment to the ecology and the economy,” Chinnis said.

The FDEP guidelines note mangroves stabilize the coastline, protect water quality, reduce coastal flooding, provide habitat for fish, protect young fish from predators, protect wildlife species, serve as bird nesting areas and contribute $7.6 billion annually to the economy while creating 109,000 jobs in Florida.

Karen Willey is the conservation chair for the Florida Native Plant Society’s Serenoa Chapter. In February she filed a complaint with FDEP after seeing an Aqua advertisement that Medallion Home ran in the Washington Post.

“From the photographs in the ad, it appeared the mangroves had been trimmed and it looked questionable. I went to the FDEP website, filled out a complaint form and included a link to the ad. They called within a few days saying the mangroves appeared to be trimmed but they really couldn’t tell. They said they would be following up,” Willey said.

“This came up in February. Why is it the middle of April and they’ve done nothing? This is a serious issue. Mangroves are so important and we need to do everything we can to protect them. They should not be giving trimming permits on pristine mangrove forests like this. I think the time has come where we need to say no more mangrove trimming. Since the 1940s we have lost more than 50% of our mangroves on Sarasota Bay and we cannot afford to lose more,” Willey said.

On April 20, The Sun took a boat tour of the Aqua shoreline. A large swath of shoreline mangroves had been trimmed in front of the four-story, multi-unit residential buildings being built toward the northwest end of the Aqua property. The trimmed mangroves now provide a clear view of the bay for many of those residential units. The trimmed mangroves appear to be between 8 and 10 feet tall and the remaining untrimmed mangroves on the Aqua property appear to be between 20 and 30 feet tall.

FDEP investigating Aqua’s mangrove trimming
These mangroves were trimmed along the southeastern end of the Aqua property where numerous single-family homes are being built. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Another large swath of mangroves was trimmed to the same height in front of the single-family homes being built at the southeast end of the Aqua property. The trimmed mangroves along the Aqua shoreline are about the same height as the trimmed mangroves along the Legends Bay shoreline.

FDEP’s slow response

Bloom is also concerned about FDEP’s slow response time.

“It’s been several weeks. The first complaint was nearly a week before Karen Willey’s complaint. Someone made it to FDEP’s Southern District out of Fort Myers and it was relayed to the Southwest District in Temple Terrace that governs mangrove trimming in this area,” Bloom said.

“DEP took a very long time to respond to the situation and the email chains show what appears to be excessive caution and delay in responding to citizens’ complaints. Now we’re in a situation where it looks like the deed is done. With their failure to notify DEP and provide photographs of preexisting conditions, I think it’s going to really complicate any investigation because there’s going to be a lack of evidence of how they trimmed,” Bloom said.

“DEP seemed to be absent and it begs the question as to whether DEP is up to the task of adequately regulating and enforcing mangrove trimming in Manatee County; and whether Manatee County should pick up the slack. Every coastal county surrounding Manatee County has their own mangrove program. Sarasota County has been running a mangrove program for the last three years, I think, and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have longstanding mangrove programs.

“Manatee County’s been the holdout and I think they need to take a hard look at paying attention to and protecting the existing natural environmental infrastructure which includes the mangroves, dunes and seagrasses that are rapidly disappearing. Sarasota County has lost almost all of their natural shoreline. Manatee County still has a lot, but we’ve just lost a significant amount at Long Bar Pointe (Aqua). What’s happening at Long Bar Pointe should focus the attention of the Manatee County Commission to recognize the need to pay more attention to our dwindling mangrove populations,” Bloom said.

“I will be bird-dogging DEP and try to be as up to date as possible on the investigation by reviewing their records and watching to ensure there’s a thorough investigation and appropriate enforcement. We don’t know what the violations have been, but the maximum fines for violations seem wholly inadequate considering the value that mangroves have to our estuary and our community,” Bloom said.