At Suncoast Waterkeeper, our primary objective is to protect our coasts. Our work with mangroves and at Long Bar Pointe are examples of projects dedicated to this goal.
Mangroves provide essential nursery habitat for many aquatic species and define our remaining natural shoreline. We have lost thousands of acres of mangroves in the Sarasota Bay Estuary as development has replaced saltwater wetlands with seawalls and turfgrass. A recent mapping project showed that more than 100 miles of seawalls and other hardened shorelines dominate the Sarasota Bay watershed. Recently, Sarasota County was forced to stop enforcing its Mangrove Protection regulations, which are preempted by State Law. Manatee County has no local mangrove regulations and relies on weakened state regulation.
We plan to take action in four ways. Suncoast Waterkeeper will:
- petition Sarasota and Manatee Counties to seek approval from the State to administer their own, stronger mangrove protections, while we
- engage the public with a citizen's monitoring and data collection program. Meanwhile, we will
- press the State to improve their enforcement efforts, which have been sidelined by the current administration. When the regulators don’t do their jobs enforcing the law, we will. Using the citizens suit provisions of the Clean Water Act, we will
- initiate litigation for dredge and fill violations that damage and destroy our mangroves.
Long Bar Pointe
Illegal mangrove trimming adjacent to the Aqua development is very concerning. A crude nutrient model indicates that the trimming and leftover debris is contributing to significant nitrogen inputs in the area (Personal Communication, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, July 21, 2022). It is no wonder that the area is also plagued by recurring Lyngbya-type algal blooms. Suncoast Waterkeeper and others are recommending that the debris is cleaned up and the violators are held accountable.
Rusty Chinnis, Chairman of Suncoast Waterkeeper was hearing from local fishing guides about the mangrove trimming that had taken place along the Sarasota Bay shoreline west of the Aqua development. On April 4, he received a complaint from Captain Justin Moore and went by boat to the area to document his concerns. He flew a drone and took pictures along the shoreline and what he observed alarmed him. There were large mature mangroves that had been cut, were denuded of leaves, and appeared dead.
There was also a large amount of cut debris in the water including branches that were of greater diameter and longer than allowed under FDEP guidelines.
When he reached out to the FDEP in April to file a complaint he found that Karen Wiley had filed a complaint two months earlier in February 2022. The response he got from the FDEP indicated that they had sent a letter to the permit holder about the February complaint and had not heard back from them. They also stated that they couldn’t get on the property to inspect without permission from the property owner. After raising the issue with local and State Representatives including Representative Will Robinson, Senator Jim Boyd and the Manatee County Commission an inspection was done which claimed that the conditions of the permit had been met.
The Chairman sent a letter challenging the FDEP Inspection report on the Aqua Mangrove “trimming” with images showing his concerns. After receiving a reply from the FDEP asking about GPS-tagged images he revisited the site and took tagged images. These images were sent to Hannah Westervelt, FDEP Environmental Manager for our region and she indicated that inspectors were sent back out. She indicated that two inspections were conducted of the area including areas of our concerns. The inspections confirmed our concerns. The permit holder was given until August 12 to reply to the letter, and we are currently waiting for the response.
Suncoast Waterkeeper is committed to protecting our waters and finds it unfortunate and unwise for future citizens and local businesses that State regulators are not performing their duty in a timely manner to protect the citizens of the area, present and future.
Some additional images that document our concerns:
In 2006, the Manatee County Commission issued a permit to Larry Lieberman for a 1,600-unit residential development on 523 acres of waterfront property in Bradenton. Due to the subsequent recession, the project never went forward. Instead, the property headed toward foreclosure. At the last minute, Mr. Lieberman partnered with Carlos Beruff to keep the project going. Initial plans for this development included buildings 78 feet in height, which is 43 feet higher than the county's normal 35 foot limit.
Beruff and Lieberman have been attempting to heavily develop the waterfront at Long Bar Point, including a marina with a long channel to connect with the distant intercoastal waterway which would entail major dredging of a sensitive shallow area of the bay with significant seagrasses, along with destruction of mangroves and other coastal habitat. The developers sought changes to the Manatee County Comprehensive Plan which would have allowed their plan to go forward, erasing coastal environmental protections which would also have opened many other environmentally sensitive coastal areas to inappropriate development without environmental protections contained in the Comp Plan.
The community came out in force against the proposal. We celebrated a victory in the fight to protect and restore remaining natural coastline in Manatee County when an impressive turnout of over 1000 advocates packed the convention center and swayed the developer friendly County Commision. The plan to build a marina and destroy significant areas of mangroves at Long Bar Point as part of a large development was amended, withdrawing a marina as a possible waterfront use and keeping in place important environmental protections afforded by the Comprehensive Plan.
Not to be deterred by things like laws, regulations, the will of the public, the vote of the County Commission... Beruff and Lieberman sued the County, arguing that the Comp Plan is unconstitutional and asked the Circuit Court to force the County to pay them for the value of the land (as premium developable waterfront). Suncoast Waterkeeper intervened in this "Takings Challenge" along with FISH (Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage) and defended the Comp Plan, highlighting the importance of Long Bar Point, Sarasota Bay, and the terrible outcome that would have come from the precedent of this case, eroding similar environmental protections in other coastal Counties. The county and environmental intervenors prevailed in Circuit Court, but the developers have appealed the decision.
Meanwhile, Beruff and Lieberman are attempting to permit a Mitigation Bank at Long Bar, to gain valuable credits from the State for "protecting" mangroves and seagrasses that they are not allowed to impact anyway! We are challenging this latest effort to subvert environmental regulations for greed.
This piece of property is one of the last large, undeveloped areas in this region of the Gulf Coast. The developers’ marina plans would involve removal of 20-40 acres of mangroves from the shoreline and would require dredging of a very shallow area of intracoastal that contains two acres of healthy sea grasses. Mangroves are native to Florida and provide vital services such as filtering water and buffering land from the impacts of storms and hurricanes. Mangroves can assist in erosion prevention and reduce flood damage when present in sufficient numbers. They also provide breeding habitat for a wide variety of aquatic life. The 1996 Mangrove Trimming & Preservation Act, enacted with a goal to “protect and preserve mangrove resources valuable to our environment and economy from unregulated removal, defoliation, and destruction”, set a course for local governments to protect mangroves.
Likewise, seagrasses also filter water and provide habitat for marine organisms. They also act as a food source for some species of fish and other marine creatures. The importance of the rolls of seagrasses and mangroves in Florida cannot be overemphasized. The State of Florida currently engages in extensive activities aimed at protecting the state’s seagrass resources, including mapping and monitoring, education and outreach, and restoration projects. Dredging the intracoastal area adjacent to this development would eliminate the seagress population in that area and with it the beneficial ecosystem it creates.
Attempted Changes to County Ordinances
The developers of this property are requesting certain adjustments to county ordinances in order to pave the way for their project. One such amendment is PA-13-06 (PROPOSED ORDINANCE 1323), which would “amend the Manatee County Comprehensive Plan; providing for an amendment to Chapter 3, Conservation, to create a new Policy 22.214.171.124, and to Chapter 4, Coastal Management, to create a new Policy 126.96.36.199, of the Comprehensive Plan; the purposes of said amendments are to encourage water related or water enhanced uses as a component of mixed use projects of a specified minimum acreage, strategically located along a coastal line adjacent to navigable waters and an arterial road.” Another is PA-13-03 (PROPOSED ORDINANCE 1308), which would amend the Future Land Use Map to change the zoning from RES-9 (Residential – 9 dwelling units per gross acre) to MU (Mixed Use).
Building this project would also expose homes and businesses to areas designated by FEMA as a Coastal High Hazard Areas. This designation means that the areas are prone to high velocity wave action during large storms. They are shown as Zone V on Flood Insurance Rate Maps. Buildings in this area are required to be elevated on pilings or columns and carry with them a significantly increased flood insurance premium. While there are no direct prohibitions against building in Coastal High Hazard Areas, FEMA does require communities living in erosion-prone areas to have in place and enforce a flood plain management plan. This project, along with conforming to other sets of regulations, would have to meet the standards of the local flood plain management plan.
Update: October 9, 2017 - Manatee County Commissioners unanimously approved the development last Tuesday after some significant changes were made by Beruff. The changes included removing the so called "Estuary Enhancement Area" which would have dredged a canal/waterway behind the mangroves. We believe that the phony "Estuary Enhancement Area" would have significantly harmed the mangroves. The proposed seawall behind the canal also was removed from the plan and wetland impacts were reduced from about 14 acres to 7 acres. The other significant change provides a requirement that the County Commission must grant preliminary site plan approval at a public hearing versus just a staff approval, when 750 residential units are completed and then for the next 750 unit increments.
Protection of the waterfront vista and maintaining Manatee County’s unique coastal character were issues that were largely ignored. Traffic issues were not addressed, nor were the public's significant concerns about height. Rather than scaling down the massive buildings that will be over 110 feet above sea level, the approval allows for at least 16 buildings that will tower over northern Sarasota Bay's coastline. The approval process will require a preliminary site plan for the first 750 units approved only by staff.
County Staff again appeared either incompetent or powerless to properly do their jobs. Like a broken record, all they could say, like every other meeting, is that they recommend approval and it was consistent with the rules. This statement was false from the beginning of the process. After two years of review, staff still thought only 2 tall building would be built. After two years of review, the staff’s failure to understand the rules on the 50 foot buffer requirement were still glaringly obvious with staff still maintaining that the variable width buffer was acceptable. After two years, the staff continued to ignore the requirement for a showing that 7 specific criteria be met for buildings over 35 feet.
This is what you get when the County administration plays politics with land use. Staff met with the applicant representatives for over a hundred hours, an applicant who has sued the county many times and is looking to maximize profit. Staff refused or was instructed not to meet with citizens and environmental organizations with valuable expertise. Rather than accept the obviously needed input on code and environmental issues, staff treated citizens like the enemy. The Land Development Code is intended to "respect the rights of property owners, and the consideration of the interests of the citizens of the County".
The approval without the canal and seawall is a win for the environment. The height approval which the commissioners had full discretion to vote against is a loss and still violates rules to protect waterfront vistas. The approval represents maximum density in an area of constrained roads along Sarasota Bay's largest remaining natural shoreline.
The process for approval on Tuesday was a desperate scramble to get this project approved regardless of the rules. Fortunately, Assistant County Attorney Sarah Schenk provided a clear warning that it would not be legal without submission of a new General Development Plan. Several commissioners wanted to approve the existing plan with "stipulations" addressing the changes described above, which would have precluded further review and public comment.
There is no doubt that without all the public comments, testimony, and the petition, a new dredged canal and seawall would have been approved along with 155 foot tall building above Sarasota Bay. While we share feelings of reward and vindication with the thousands of opponents of this poorly planned development, there is also a feeling of loss for the unique character of our community, and frustration with the failure of the County to follow the rules. We would have preferred a denial of this massive project.
We are not sure of our future actions on the land use decision; we will keep you informed. Other effort and actions continue; we are still challenging the mitigation bank’s attempt to get seagrass credits that would allow dredging a new channel in Sarasota Bay(this hearing will be December), we continue challenging a conceptual permit approved by SWFMD that includes the new canal on the back of the mangroves(eliminated from the County approval but the permit has yet to modify the removal of this canal), and we continuously provide information to the Army Corp of Engineers on what we believe are violations of Federal rules. Donations are always appreciated to continue protecting what we value.
Some good news around the Bay, the bald eagles have returned to the nest that was suspiciously removed from the development site. It was rebuilt by the eagles last year, then occupied by owls during the summer and now the mother and father eagles are back sitting in the nest and tree. Draw your own analogy.
How Can I Help?
Because this development has the ability to impose such a negative impact on local ecology, our desire is to hold the developers to the highest level of environmental protection. Recreationists and fishermen, along with those living in the area, enjoy the benefits provided by the mangroves and seagrasses near this piece of land.
Stay vigilant and attend events. Click here to see the upcoming events pertaining to this campaign.
We are committed to ensuring that the data we present are as accurate as possible. We will correct any errors that are verifiable.