News Section: Environment
Best of 2013: When Money Talks, Bay Priorities Walk
Many supporters of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program expect ecological guidance and preservation that protects surrounding wetlands, uplands and waterways to be a given. Those supporters relied on SBEP to provide expertise if any action threatened the sensitive eco-balance of the bay, but when a proposed project recently did just that, SBEP was silent. Several spoke up to voice their collective concern. SBEP Executive Director Mark Alderson says that he was doing his job. They'd like to know who he was working for.
At the September 13 SBEP management board meeting, Alderson sat quietly while Citizen Advisory Committee members, environmentalists, residents and supporters criticized his hands-off approach to what has been the most contested project in Manatee County's history -- Long Bar Pointe, where hundreds of acres of seagrass and one of the last large forests of mangroves on the Sarasota Bay's shore were threatened by a town-sized development.
Just two miles up shore from the proposed development is the Cortez Fishing Village, a historic neighborhood that relies on the millions of incubating fish which breed in the seagrasses and the dozens of species of seabirds that nest in the few remaining mangroves. The area is known as "the Kitchen," because it is where locals have utlimately sourced their food for more than 100 years.
"There is no need to worry," says Carlos Beruff, President of Medallion Homes and one of the developers of the proposed site. Beruff recently purchased the property from Larry Lieberman, who will now partner with him to build thousands of dwellings, a shopping plaza, and possibly a hotel and convention center on the property. Their intentions were to include a 100-slip marina, but that segment of the project was temporally bargained away at the August 6 Manatee BOCC meeting. There they were granted approval for a map amendment necessary to the project.
Prior to the August 6 hearing, environmentalists, ecologists, preservationists and civic leaders allied together to voice the incurring threat that Beruff's Long Bar Pointe (LBP) project presented to the bay's ecosystem. All but one organization spoke on behalf of the bay, all but SBEP, who remained completely silent on the issue.
Critics of the project claim that excavating, constructing and maintaining such an enormous development would devastate the land and its many inhabitants, while violating most of what SBEP's charter claims to protect.
Through the duration of the permitting process, Alderson refused to comment, claiming that the organization's attorney, Bill Clague, had advised the organization to remain quiet, if they were to avoid possible legal action.
There is question as to whether Clague's quasi-gag-order was ethical, but what was equally disturbing is the fact that Clague is also the Manatee County attorney that counseled the BOCC in preparation for the LBP applicant's request.
Clague says there is no conflict of interest, that he can separate the two positions. Prior to the permitting, Clague also recommended members of the BOCC not speak to anyone about the project, or answer emails.
At the September 13 meeting, Alderson defended his non-action, saying he avoided any comment on the project because of Clague's forewarning; but claimed that he did pass on technical information to Rob Brown, a SBEP Policy Board member and the Manatee County Division Manager for Natural Resources.
At the same meeting, Brown was asked why he didn't deliver that information to the BOCC on Aug. 6. Brown said, "Because the same estuary science was provided by other comparable scientists."
Considering the magnitude of the project, the significance of the potential impact, and whose duty it is to convey technical information to the BOCC, the answer seemed dubious.
It seems Clague's censure managed to impede technical information from being presented at the August BOCC meeting. Had Alderson stated the goals of the SBEP charter and the accepted sciences that supported a position, commissioners may have not so easily approved the map amendment for the LBP project.
But not having the accepted science presented at the BOCC August meeting (outside of public comment) may have been a convenient consequence for commissioners who were dodging claims of a conflict of interest with Beruff and Lieberman, who'd generously sponsored all but one of their campaigns.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) grants $133,000 in annual funding to SBEP, and Beruff is Chairman of SWFWMD. It isn't a stretch of the imagination for some citizens to feel this is an all too cozy situation.
Furthermore, Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac had once worked for Liberman, years ago, on the Long Bar Pointe project, and County Commissioner Carol Whitmore's son-in-law works for Beruff. Both denied any conflict, then voted to approve the map amendment at the August meeting.
At the September SBEP meeting, Alderson was feeling the pressure, but didn't take any responsibility for dodging duties. Instead, he chose to shift attention to SBEP Public Outreach Manager Sara Kane.
Kane had the difficult task of communicating, both to SBEP Policy Board members and citizens alike, answers to the barrage of questions and information requests, as to why Alderson didn't produce any statement, or even a white paper, prior to, or even after the August 6 BOCC meeting.
Kane said, "I think it is important to bring the information to the Policy Board," adding, "It is very frustrating for me too ... our whole purpose is to protect the bay."
In a string of emails dating back to June 14, Clague suggested to Manatee County Commissioner, John Chappie that SBEP's participation in the August 6 meeting would be adversarial. At no time did Clague say that Alderson could have stated SBEP's Charter and limited his role to providing technical science to the BOCC.
Sierra Club Regional Organizing Representative, Cris Costello's email stated, "I don't think anyone who is requesting SBEP involvement is expecting SBEP to take a 'position' but rather we want the science related to the development made clear to decision makers."
Alderson's reply to Costello, stated, "The chair of the SWFWMD Governing Board (also the prime developer) has direct veto power over National Estuary Program funding -- $533,000 last year." Alderson then suggested that all of their positions could be at risk. What could that mean other than, you don't bite the hand that feeds you?
Another email requesting SBEP's expertise, came from Randall Moore, Director of the Sarasota Bay Water Festival. In the email, Moore stated "…there appears to be a lack of factual information about the importance of seagrass, the importance of mangroves, the consequences of dredging and the relationship between coastal development and storm water runoff, water quality, and the preservation of wetlands."
But the collective email exchanges clearly described a concerted effort by Clague and Alderson to keep SBEP on the sidelines. SBEP has an annual budget of $1.2 million, most of which comes from taxpayer-funded organizations, as well as a small percentage from private contributions.
SBEP's charter says its mission is protecting Sarasota Bay's ecosystem, but in this instance, big business and big salaries seemed to be the focus of protection.
SBEP Public Money in FY 2012:
EPA -- $597,167
SWFWMD -- $133,000
Manatee County -- $50,000
Sarasota County -- $50,000
City of Sarasota --$33,000
City of Bradenton/Longboat Key -- $4,000
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