RUSKIN — A year after county commissioners rejected a plan to develop a sliver of wetlands along the Little Manatee River, the proposal is up for a vote again.
The developer, Little Manatee LLC, asked in April of 2009 to rezone 46 acres for eight homes on a coastal high-hazard area known as Mill Bayou. That would have been added to a plan for 22 homes on the east side of the river, which commissioners approved in 2006.
The 300-foot, mangrove-lined spit of land juts into the river off a dirt road, off Seventh Street SW, east of S Tamiami Trail.
It's called a coastal high-hazard area because of a risk for storm surge.
Commissioners cited potential for flooding, hurricane damage and environmental disruption when they shot down the proposal in a 6-1 vote.
But the developer appealed to the Circuit Court, which ruled that commissioners needed to show better evidence in their reasons for denial.
Assistant County Attorney Adam Gormley said in a meeting last month that policies about development in coastal high-hazard areas were not addressed when the board first heard the proposal.
The plan was sent back to zoning hearing master Steve Luce, who again signed off on the project May 24.
The developer's lawyer, Richard Davis, told the zoning board that the Mill Bayou plan jibes with restrictions imposed on similar sites — even though it includes six more units than allowed under current zoning rules.
If commissioners approve changing the zoning to "residential-1," the planned number of units would not exceed the maximum allowed, said Krista Kelly, of the county's Planning Commission.
Davis said the site would connect to county water and sewage rather than using septic tanks, which are prohibited in coastal high-hazard areas. The plan also includes a 50-foot buffer to protect wetlands along the river.
He also said existing hurricane shelters could accommodate the dozen or so residents expected to fill the new homes.
An engineer called by Davis vouched that the stilt homes would be above base flood levels and retention ponds would collect overflow, despite neighbors' assertions that the river has flooded spots where ponds are planned.
Luce recommended the project for approval but added that homes, lanais and pools should be kept outside a 100-foot buffer zone of healthy native trees and that fences, open storage and parking should remain out of conservation areas.
The decision is now again in the hands of county commissioners, who will consider the proposal at Tuesday at 9 a.m.
County officials expedited the hearing following complaints from the developer's lawyer about time and money already spent seeking approval.
Environmental activists are working to rally a crowd in opposition, but it gets tougher the longer the project drags on, said Mariella Smith, a Ruskin activist.
"It wears people down, and they (the developers) count on that," Smith said. "This is obviously the wrong thing to do."
Commissioners initially rejected the first, larger part of the project, too. The developer appealed the decision, reducing the proposed number of homes from 25 to 22 and promising environmental protections, including relocating 20 gopher tortoises.
The commission approved the project with its amendments in December 2006.
No homes have been built.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or [email protected]