News Section: Opinion
Did Long Bar Developers Pocket 20 Grand on Application Fees?
BRADENTON – A recent request for a future use map change at Long Bar Pointe, passed by the County Commission at a recent Land Use meeting, along with a request from the same applicant for a text change amendment which failed, have raised more questions than answers as to the legality of the process and who actually makes some of the budget decisions in Manatee County.
Whether such a request is eventually ratified, or if it fails, the application must go before the commission for approval after the staff has reviewed it and presents their finding. Ordinance change requests, Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan changes are just a few of the decisions that are made by the county's constitutional officers, in compliance with the Florida Constitution.
In a sense, staff department heads are like pilots, there to make sure procedures go according to plan as scripted by statutes and County policies. When that process veers off course and takes a direction that is not in compliance with the county guidelines, it is in violation of county policy adopted by resolution or ordinance.
John Barnott, Department Director for Building and Development Services, may have taken far more liberty than his position prescribes when setting the fees for what was arguably the largest contested development project in Manatee County's history.
County building and development fees are required to pay for the technical and professional process that insures compliance is achieved. They also prevent taxpayers from subsidizing a developer. Any change of an application's fees is a decision that affects the county's budget. That procedure requires approval from the BOCC (via a vote at a public meeting), and is not a liberty of department heads.
On the Long Bar Pointe (LBP) development, Barnott appears to have reduced the fees – without a board action. Shelley Hamilton, the Manatee County planner who supervised the application process for the LBP project, said, "Mr. Barnott made the decision to bundle the application fees."
The LBP application fees in question include 2 separate issues: the map amendment, and the text amendment, the fee charged for the sort of attention special requests require, the due diligence necessary to prevent unintended consequences and the many other procedures that are required for a project the size of LBP.
The proposed LBP project is larger than many towns. A 260-room hotel, 3,600 residential dwellings, a 100-slip marina, a 175,000 sq. ft. convention center with retail shops and restaurants. And remember, that's the slimmed down version.
On August 6, at the 11th hour of the 12-hour BOCC land use meeting that decided LBP's fate, the process turned into more of a tit-for-tat on game changers; where some of the board members pleaded with the applicant to temporarily drop the idea of building a marina, seemingly so that they could save some face with their increasingly piqued constituents.
The 2 a.m. 5-2 vote for approval on the map amendment was a slightly reduced version of what the developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman first submitted, but staff nonetheless had the job of performing all of the due diligence for the original request.
Assessing the impacts necessary to approve an LBP-sized development would include evaluating the consequences for dredging a 2,000-ft. long, 60-ft. wide, 5-ft. deep channel, and a total analysis of what that much loss of sea grass equates to.
When dredging, there are unintended consequences to the commercial and sport fishing industry, which needed to be researched, and equally so, there would be consequences for removing some of the only mangroves left in Sarasota Bay. All of the staff work needed to perform these duties can be very timely and expensive.
Back in April, Hamilton and Ed Vogler, attorney for the applicants, exchanged a series of emails which mentioned an additional application would be necessary. Beruff had applied for a map change amendment, but according to Hamilton, staff suggested to Beruff that a text amendment would be necessary to achieve his stated goals.
Vogler's reply stated that he didn't anticipate nor see the need for an additional application and requested "… the totality of the application be processed as presented." That is, to proceed with both a text amendment and a second change; the map amendment.
In a request to the planning department for the LBP application receipts, Hamilton only produced one, and said it covered both of the two separate items, which had two separate votes and resulted in two separate outcomes – but just one receipt. A map change amendment and a text change amendment are in fact, two separate issues.
A request to build a town-sized development is likely to require hundreds of hours of due diligence research by the planning department, and almost equal time from public works and environmental specialists to weigh in on the assorted complex inherent issues building on a shoreline would entail; which explains why it is also very pricy. The application fee for a Text Change Amendment alone is $20,000 – the amount on the one receipt Hamilton produced for payment from the developer for the LBP project. The additional $20,000 fee was never paid.
Beruff also requested that the amendment be applied to his LBP project only, and not be available to other applicants. Of course, that's not the best way for a county to refrain from setting precedents for other developers. Consequently, it is how a county might attract a legal challenge by other developers who choose to duplicate the exception and exclusive advantage offered to the isolated example.
Was there favoritism throughout the LBP permitting process? It would seem so. But as far as the application fees go, they are the responsibility of the applicant and it was Beruff and company who decided they wanted to request a change to the county's rules to build a billion-dollar, town-sized development.
The cost to prepare what is required for the LBP project should be on Beruff and Lieberman's dime, not the taxpayers of Manatee County – part of the reason why waiving or consolidating fees requires a vote by elected officials in a public meeting.
It seems that the board owes taxpayers an explanation as to why that wasn't the case when a politically-connected applicant came before them and was able to save 20 grand at their expense. Otherwise, taxpayers may get the sense that all of those campaign contributions have a way of getting repaid literally as well as figuatively.