News Section: Opinion
SBEP's Absence on Long Bar Pointe Raises Questions
When nearly a thousand people showed up at the Bradenton Area Convention Center last week, where the Manatee County Commission was deciding whether or not to profoundly change the way we do waterfront development, there were an impressive amount of experts at the podium during citizen comments. But the area's National Estuary Program, SBEP, wasn't among them and their absence from the process did not go unnoticed.
Started in 1989, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is one of 28 National Estuary Programs created by the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act. The NEP's were established by Congress to improve the quality of estuaries of national importance. Through partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency, local governments and the private sector, SBEP has helped to oversee a successful restoration of Sarasota Bay. Along the way, it changed its mission from “restoring” to “restoring and protecting” and prides itself on using “science to support local decision-making, emphasize collaborative problem-solving, and engage the public.”
So when one of its governmental partners is considering a highly-controversial countywide text amendment on coastal development, as well as a future use map that would have allowed for ongoing dredging in the bay that the organization accepts taxpayer dollars to “restore and protect,” it might logically be assumed that they would be involved with the process, at least to provide some of that science that would have been oh so valuable to the decision-making process, collaborative problem-solving and public engagement.
When asked why SBEP chose to sit out the biggest Bay issue in decades, Executive Director Mark Alderson referred me to an email thread in which SBEP and its legal counsel had already answered that very question. In an email to County Commissioner John Chappie, whose district includes the islands and much of the coastal mainland, SBEP's attorney, Bill Clague, responded to the commissioner's question as to whether they would be involved by advising that the organization “has historically functioned as a cooperative program for making improvements to the Bay and its contributing water bodies, and is not geared up to participate in adversarial proceedings.”
In a similar email to former Manatee County Commissioner Ron Getman, Alderson wrote that SBEP "has not traditionally been involved in land development decisions throughout the region” and claimed that such involvement would require approval of the SBEP Policy Board, which as fate would have it, was not meeting again until September.
This assertion seems thin. The countywide text amendment was more than a land development issue. If it had passed, it would have been a major change of coastal policy with profound consequences for the waterways that SBEP says it is mandated to protect. No one is saying that SBEP needed to take a side or even offer an opinion on whether either the future use map was changed or the text amendment was adopted. They could have quite simply authored a white paper, presenting the science in terms of possible impact on the estuary and its waterways, while making itself available for questions.
It seems that they were advised not to do so. Coincidentally, Mr. Clague, who is also a deputy county attorney, was representing the county on the matter as well. Given that the county was sharply criticized for a staff presentation that did little more than regurgitate the assertions of the applicant and seemingly failed to include much input from the county's top environmental talent, opponents of the plan have cause to raise their eyebrows an extra inch at SBEP's absence.
Add in the fact that one of the applicants, Medallion Homes' Carlos Beruff, also sits on the board of the water management district through which much of SBEP's funding passes (SWFWMD) and things get even fuzzier. Of course the fact that Beruff and his partner Larry Lieberman sponsored a majority of the county commission seats from whom they were seeking votes obviously raises red flags every time he comes before them.
At the end of the day, the tremendous opposition that showed up to oppose the two votes had a lot of reasons to feel like the deck was stacked, and despite the text amendment failing and the marina language being removed from the future use map, the board still voted (4-3 with Commissioners Chappie, Gallen and DiSabatino dissenting) to allow for more aggressive development than had previously been approved.
There were two taxpayer-funded entities that the opposition would have liked to see doing everything that could be done to protect the public interest in such a vital environmental and economic resource – SBEP and county employees. I think it's fair to say they didn't get that, and as you watched the county legal staff chum it up with the applicant's attorney in the back of the room, it was hard to know who was representing who – never a good sign when it comes to the public's business.
When development and environmental resources clash, Manatee County seems poised to move toward an applicant-driven process in which everyone who might argue the other side of the coin when developers claim that a particular project is all sunshine and rainbows, sees their role diminished. Luckily (and with the good fortune of a tropical storm-induced continuance and summer recess offering extra time to get the word out), the swell of citizens who showed up to oppose the items helped to at least somewhat offset that dynamic.
However, you're not likely to get 1,000 people mobilized for every vote – and you shouldn't have to. The public should be able to have reasonable faith that their interests are being protected by the people paid to do so, whether they themselves are out in droves or not. Clearly, when it comes to development issues, such is not the case in Manatee County.
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