Monday, May 21, 2018
News Roundup

Controversy over Manatee County development shows how growth management works now

Carlos Beruff is one of Florida's most powerful people. He has run a major development firm for 30 years, donated heavily to Gov. Rick Scott and other politicians, and is chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which controls the region's water supply.

Given Beruff's clout, you might expect that any project of his would easily win government approval. But last month, Beruff's most daring development project drew more than 1,000 people to a Manatee County Commission meeting, most of them to object to the comprehensive plan changes that Beruff had requested. A marathon 13-hour hearing ensued, with an unexpected outcome.

This is the way Florida's growth management system works now.

In the past, a project like Beruff's would never have gotten that far, said Joe McClash, who spent 20 years as a Manatee commissioner. The state Department of Community Affairs would have objected to the comprehensive plan changes Beruff's project required, he said.

Former DCA secretary Tom Pelham agreed. Beruff's project, which involved a large hotel and marina, is reminiscent of a Taylor County project in 2006, he said. His department opposed the comprehensive plan changes and the developer dropped the marina.

But two years ago Scott and the Legislature dismantled the DCA, contending its anti-sprawl decisions interfered with any revival of the state's growth industry. As a result, Pelham said, "the only real enforcement now comes from the citizens."

But the citizens might not have known about Beruff's project had it not been for a tropical storm.

Beruff, 55, a Miami native, got his start in his 20s as a salesman for U.S. Home. In 1984 he founded his own company, Medallion Homes. He served on Scott's transition team. In addition to his gubernatorial appointment to the agency known as Swiftmud, he serves on an airport authority board and a college board of trustees.

But Beruff wanted to make a lasting mark. While in Spain, he took a walk on Barcelona's famed "Las Ramblas" promenade.

"I turned to my wife and I said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we had this in Bradenton?' " he recalled.

That inspired him to join forces with another developer, Larry Lieberman, on a 463-acre project on Sarasota Bay. Beruff envisioned a waterfront resort named Long Bar Pointe: a hotel and conference center, homes, condos, offices, stores and what he called "a lifestyle marina."

"We were trying to create an icon," Beruff said.

He viewed Long Bar Pointe as something to rival the Breakers in Palm Beach or the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. "Palm Beach grew around the Breakers," he said. "That's what we were trying to create."

The marina was intended "to lure people there," Beruff explained. It required a 60-foot-wide channel dredged through 2,100 feet of sea grass, plus chopping down 225 feet of mangroves.

Beruff said the developers met with county planners about changing their comprehensive plan designation from residential to mixed-use, and also altering a section to allow for more construction in flood-prone areas. The planning staff liked it, he said, because "it was not just another boring subdivision."

The developers expected similar enthusiasm from the County Commission. The Bradenton Herald reported that six of seven commissioners had received campaign contributions totaling $42,500 from companies owned by Lieberman and Beruff. One had even worked for Lieberman.

The public hearing was scheduled for June 6. But when Tropical Storm Andrea threatened, it was postponed until Aug. 6.

If not for Andrea, the vote would have occurred in June and "there would not have been 1,000 people there," said Linda T. Jones, who chairs the Sarasota-Manatee chapter of the Sierra Club. "A lot of people didn't know what was happening."

Word spread. Opposition grew. Environmental activists, local historians and anglers joined forces because the channel would destroy sea grass beds crucial to the livelihood of the historic fishing village of Cortez. About 6,000 people signed petitions opposing Long Bar Pointe.

Beruff insisted the project wouldn't work without the marina. The developers' website, featuring pictures of manatees and dolphins, argued the project would produce "massive benefits."

But at the rescheduled hearing, facing the enormous crowd, commissioners voted down the plan change on coastal development. To avoid total defeat, the developers pulled the marina, enabling the other plan change to squeak by 4-3 just before 2 a.m.

Long Bar Pointe opponents celebrated, but the project is not dead. The plan change that was approved now goes to the state agency that replaced the DCA, the Department of Economic Opportunity. Pelham said it has so far not rejected a single comprehensive plan change.

Beruff says that for now, the developers don't know if they can replace the marina or if they will try it again. He complained that too many people are cynical about government. The opponents should have had faith that regulators would ensure Long Bar Pointe would be beneficial.

"You're never going to do something if it harms the environment," Beruff said. "That would never be allowed to happen."

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

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