To sue or not to sue over Aqua by the Bay.
It’s up for debate among opponents after Manatee County commissioners gave the green light to the large-scale development along the longest stretch of pristine mangrove-lined shoreline on Sarasota Bay.
A new general development plan and 191-acre rezoning request proffered by developers Carlos Beruff, Larry Lieberman and the Long Bar Pointe LLLP and Cargor Partners VIII team gained unanimous commission approval Oct. 3.
A 20-year buildout is expected for 2,384 multi-family units, 510 single-family lots and 78,000 square feet of commercial space — with 16 buildings up to 95 feet tall and an unknown number of buildings ranging in heights of 36-95 feet.
The hearing was the fourth since May at which commissioners considered site plans for 529 acres between El Conquistador and Sarasota Bay
After the hearing, Beruff commented on the project, saying, “West Bradenton needs a shot in the arm.”
Beruff said he wanted “to regroup,” when asked about the approved plans for the site.
In addition to the Aqua plan, the county in 2004 approved 258 multi-family units and, 10 years later, 200 single-family homes in the upland area.
The new plan Beruff and Vogler negotiated at the meeting eliminates a 2-mile-long seawall and lagoon, also called an estuary enhancement area — plans widely criticized as potentially destructive to the marine ecosystem — and requires the developers to obtain approvals as Aqua builds out.
Manatee County Commissioner Stephen Jonsson, who represents District 3 — including the project site, Anna Maria Island and Cortez — motioned the approval of the new GDP ordinance, including four new stipulations, as prompted by Commission Chair Betsy Benac. His motion was seconded by Commissioner Vanessa Baugh.
Environmentalists who’ve battled various proposals for the site — including a hotel, marina and dredged canals and docks — plan to review the record and seek legal advice before deciding to take up the sword against the newly approved plan.
After the hearing, former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, an opponent of the development, said he plans to discuss the matter in the next week with other environmentalists.
In an Oct. 5 email, Suncoast Waterkeeper vice chair Andy Mele called the vote a “travesty” with decision points left open for challenge.
“It is clear that the commissioners have no idea what is going to happen on that site, and neither does the public,” he added.
Stu Smith of Suncoast Waterkeeper and Sierra Club said, “It doesn’t seem like an immediate need.”
The commissioners resolved most environmental concerns, Smith said, eliminating the lagoon, seawall and hydrologic concerns to the mangroves, “but in their fatigue, they gave up on the tall buildings.”
“As far as the visual impact to Sarasota Bay, it’s going to be devastating,” he said.
Jane von Hahmann, vice president of the Cortez-based Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and a former county commissioner, labeled the process “severely flawed.” She criticized the commission for allowing public comment after advertising it was closed.
The withdrawal of the seawall and lagoon are positive changes, she said, resolving some FISH and Cortez concerns, particularly for the mangrove shoreline and low-lying marine estuary in Sarasota Bay.
Bob Slicker, Swordfish Grill general manager, agreed with von Hahmann, saying his main concern was allayed, but he remained skeptical of the developers’ “11th-hour” changes.
A turning point came when Benac said she wouldn’t vote for the estuary enhancement area and other commissioners agreed.
Commissioner Charles Smith also criticized the plan for leaving approvals to staff, rather than phased-in approvals.
Beruff and Vogler offered stipulations to address the concerns, but assistant County Attorney Sarah Schenk warned the commissioners against an approval without new drawings.
In response, the Beruff team redrew the plan to include the stipulations during a three-hour recess.
On reconvening the meeting, Benac opened public comment on the new plan and about a dozen people went to the podium, many complaining the new plan was not noticed or available for review.
“We are at an impossible disadvantage because the public hasn’t seen the changes,” said Sandra Ripberger, Manatee Conservation chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Group of Sierra Club.
Speakers implored the commissioners to take time to consider the new plan before the vote to approve.