Environmentalists look to future after mitigation proceeding

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Tampa attorney Chris Tanner, representing Long Bar Pointe LLLP, questions the developer’s consultant, Alec Hoffner, the first day of a Dec. 5-6 hearing at the Southwest Water Management District office in Sarasota. D.R. Alexander of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings presides over a wetlands bank permit challenge, with counsel for the Department of Environmental Protection and the developer at one table and challengers, including former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, former Florida Sea Grant scientist John Stevely and others at a far right table. Islander Photo?

They’re hoping for the best in a battle over Sarasota Bay.

That’s how environmentalists viewed the landscape after a Dec. 5-6 hearing where they challenged the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s intent to issue Long Bar Pointe LLLP a mitigation bank permit.

If issued, the permit would allow the Carlos Beruff-Lieberman partnership to operate a 260-acre bank with 18.01 mitigation credits in mostly submerged lands in Sarasota Bay.

As bank operators, the Beruff-Lieberman partnership could sell the credits at $100,000-$200,000 to developers that need to mitigate the destruction of wetlands elsewhere in the region.

Former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash and Suncoast Waterkeeper Inc. and Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage fought the DEP’s draft permit with expert testimony at the hearing before D.R. Alexander, a justice with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.

“I think it went very well,” Ralf Brookes, attorney for Suncoast Waterkeeper, said Dec. 8.

“The administrative law judge listened, took notes. I look forward to him recommending a decision against the mitigation bank as proposed.

“This bank was over-allocated mitigation credits, especially with respect to the seagrasses. We don’t want this to become the norm around Florida — if you inflate the credits it will cause degradation in other areas of the region that’s not offset,” he said.

The DEP draft permit allows 7.38 credits for buoys placed at a three-foot contour outside the bank of seagrass beds to warn boaters of the low-lying area.

John Stevely, former Sea Grant scientist and founding member of Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, testified the buoys would not protect the seagrasses, but rather attract curious boaters into the shallow area.

Other testimony against the DEP permit — on issues of seagrass, mangrove trimming and ecological habitat — also came from McClash; Clark Hull, former Southwest Water Management District permit manager; Jack Merriam, former Sarasota County environmental manager; and Jay Leverone, scientist, and Mark Alderson, director, from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.

The developer and regulatory agency were aligned on two witnesses, Alec Hoffner of Eco Consultants, and Tim Rach, the DEP project manager, who defended the permit as creating no adverse environmental impacts in the two-parcel bank along a 2.5-mile coastline adjacent to Aqua by the Bay.

Hoffner testified the reason for a 100-foot gap between the parcels near the future development was for access to the bay.

McClash and other environmentalists, who’ve opposed the permit since it was first proposed, contend the developers left the gap to dredge a channel and marina.

County planner Stephanie Moreland testified about Aqua’s residential aspects, single- and multi-family homes.

Commissioners approved the development in October for 16 condo buildings up to 95-feet tall and an unknown number of 35- to 75-foot tall buildings.

Alexander is expected to issue a recommended order to the DEP after the two sides submit proposed orders.

The DEP will then, “after careful consideration of any filed exceptions to the recommended order, as well as any filed responses to those exceptions, issue a final order,” according to DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

The DEP could reverse the ALJ’s recommendation against the permit.

“The sad part of it is the recommendation goes to the secretary of the DEP. And the political powers have let (Governor) Rick Scott know, they want this bank,” McClash said.

The final decision, expected in about 90 days, is appealable to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Pete Logan, president of Medallion Homes, a Beruff company, had no comment on the DOAH hearing.

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