Almost 200 people packed into the Cortez Fishermen’s Hall July 11 to question Long Bar Pointe developer Carlos Beruff in an environment expected to be hostile for the developer given the negative impact to Sarasota Bay anticipated by residents of the village of Cortez and Anna Maria Island.
Some folks claimed meeting organizer Joe Kane deliberately turned on the heat, as the former wood church had little air-conditioned comfort to offer.
Others attending had placed bets as to whether Beruff would enter the shark’s jaw in Cortez — at best an angry crowd of villagers — while Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino, who moderated the event, told the audience that Beruff should be credited for attending.
“Give him credit for coming,” said Zaccagnino. “This is not a protest. This is informational. We might learn something from Carlos and he might learn something from us. That’s what this is all about.”
If Beruff was somehow unaware of the growing opposition to his massive bayfront development plan, he learned it July 11, as the voices of those speaking expressed strong opposition.
Beruff recently bought into the bayfront property on the mainland between Cortez and the IMG Academy with developer Larry Lieberman, who retained certain entitlements from the plan that was approved in 2008 by the Manatee County Board of Commissioners.
That approved plan called for a subdivision with thousands of single- and multi-family homes in three- to five-story buildings and 150,000 square feet of commercial development.
Beruff’s revised plan calls for more than a 1,000 single-family homes, more than 1,600 low-rise multi-family homes, 844 high-rise multi-family homes, a 300-room hotel, boat basin, 84,000-square-foot conference center and 120,000 square feet of retail space.
At issue are changes to the county’s comprehensive plan, text amendment changes required for Beruff’s revised plan to move forward that allow future development with environmental impacts on waterfront lands.
Beruff said some media reports have been inaccurate in reporting the amount of mangroves and seagrass that would be impacted by the project. He said 225 linear feet of mangroves would need to be removed to clear an entry and exit point to the proposed “boat basin,” but that the majority of mangroves — 15,000 linear feet — would remain.
Beruff backed away from the term “marina,” saying the boat basin would be constructed on uplands and have no impact to existing wetlands, although a 2,100-foot-long canal also would need to be dredged for boat access to the basin and some canal homes.
Beruff said stormwater drainage from the development into the bay would be improved beyond what currently exists.
“Right now, you have stormwater drainage from farmland and Manatee Fruit Company,” he said. “Once developed, there will be no stormwater drainage without it first being treated.”
Beruff said under the terms of his current entitlements, he has the right to build a subdivision of more than 1,650 units.
“But I said if we do just another subdivision, it’s just another subdivision,” he said. “The only people who will get to see the bayfront are the people who live behind the gates.”
He said his vision for the property was to allow access to the public, which is why he intends to attract a five-star hotel, build a shopping center and civic center and include a promenade on the waterfront.
In addressing the text amendment change, which the Manatee County Planning and Zoning Board cites as a reason to recommend denial, Beruff said it was never his intention to change the comprehensive plan for any project but his.
“Unfortunately, the way the comp plan exists, it precludes us from doing what we want to do, but it doesn’t preclude us from doing a bunch of things we don’t want to do,” he said. “The law says I can do this and build a bunch of docks, but can’t build a channel into the water. That is where the problem lies. One of the unique things about Long Bar is that we own the submerged lands.”
Beruff claimed he could build more than 150 docks at the bay under the current criteria, and if his plan doesn’t go forward, that would be the new plan.
He said that doesn’t necessarily mean he has the right to dredge, “but there is a difference between having a survey that says you own it and actually having the deed to those submerged lands. The bottom line is that those docks are allowed. That came with the property when we bought it, but I’m trying to create something that is completely different.”
Beruff said he has the right to build a variety of things, “but I said it’s not the right thing to do.”
He said he also plans to preserve about 140 acres of the property.
Holly Clouse, a Harlee Middle School teacher, pointed out Beruff owns many corporations and asked, “When Sarasota Bay dies, which company do we sue?”
Beruff responded by saying nothing will ever be developed without permitting from six county, state and federal agencies. It will be legal, he said.
“Scientists in those agencies make it incredibly difficult to permit a project,” he said. “The only way to get a permit is if you can show a net positive quality result for the bay. The whole concept that we are going out and killing the bay isn’t reality.”
Former County Commissioner Joe McClash said Beruff does not have approval for a development plan and said to get that approval will require many steps not yet taken.
He said some of the entitlements Beruff said he has do not exist, such as docks. He said the 2008 approval was specific as to eliminating docks on the bay. McClash also said he didn’t have an issue with the concept.
“While it’s not a bad project, it’s not a good project here,” said McClash.
Beruff disagreed with McClash’s assessment of the dock entitlements.
The opposition of the project varied, but many accused Beruff of destroying a culture surrounding the few remaining areas of “old Florida.”
Capt. Kathe Fannon, a Cortez-based tour boat captain, said she’s had people from all over the world come for 20-plus years on tours with her with the specific goal of seeing old Florida.
“Not once have I heard someone ask to see a big marina or five-star hotel,” she said. “Once you take old Florida from this area, it’s gone. You can’t take it back.”
Fannon asked if Beruff could relocate the project, but he said there wasn’t another 523 acres on Sarasota Bay in Manatee County. Fannon suggested maybe he find a location in Spain, which Beruff said was his inspiration for the development design. She also suggested moving the project to Sarasota or St. Petersburg.
The crowd applauded Fannon, but when Cortez’s historical spokesperson Mary Fulford Green took the microphone, telling Beruff, “You can take this project and shove it somewhere else,” she brought the house down.
Green went on to suggest Beruff’s intention to build a town across the bay would “destroy our town. If you destroy our kitchen, you destroy Cortez.”
Holmes Beach Mayor Carmel Monti said thousands of people at Beruff’s development are going to want to go the beach and, “They will come to our beaches and add to an existing problem of congestion. Tourists are the only ones that have rights anymore and that’s wrong. We need to do more to deter tourism for the sake of our citizens.”
Karen Bell, Star Fish Company Market and Restaurant owner and co-owner of A.P. Bell Fish Co., both on the Cortez waterfront, said she is pro-business and supports property rights, “but I know dredging through seagrass and cutting mangroves is not the right thing to do.”
Former Manatee Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, a resident of Cortez, asked Beruff to consider following the path of Bill Robinson, who donated land in northwest Bradenton for a preserve. Others at the meeting echoed her suggestion.
An attendee from Longboat Key suggested Beruff build a bridge from his development to the key to alleviate traffic congestion and she further suggested naming it Beruff Bridge.
Zaccagnino closed the meeting with an offer to arrange another community meeting to hear Beruff’s presentation at Holmes Beach City Hall “with better air conditioning.”
The Manatee County Board of Commissioners will take up the matter at a special land-use meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6.
The July 11 town hall meeting in Cortez was organized by Kane and a newly formed development opposition group, Save Our Bay.