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Hillsborough County rejects Little Manatee River development

RUSKIN — For now, more homes won't sprout up in a controversial development along the Little Manatee River.

This week Hillsborough County commissioners rejected a request by developer Little Manatee Reserve LLC to build eight stilt homes on a finger of land that juts into the river. The area, made up of wetlands within a coastal high-hazard area, is known to residents as Mill Bayou.

The developer asked commissioners to rezone 46 acres for the eight home sites, which would have been added to an initial plan for 22 homes located to the east. Commissioners approved the latter in 2006, though the developer has yet to build any homes.

Three years later, county leaders cited potential hurricane damage, flooding and environmental harm as reasons for not approving the latest request. They voted 6-1 to deny it.

"I don't think that little strip of land is where we need to have homes," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "If we had a (Category 1 hurricane), there would be complete destruction of this area."

Construction and subsequent tree removal would only weaken the natural buffering system in place for hurricanes and could harm wildlife, Sharpe said.

A representative for Little Manatee LLC disagreed. Richard Davis, a lawyer representing the group, said that developers would only remove trees when necessary. And if that was the case, new plants would replace those removed.

Davis said that a 50-foot buffer would protect wetlands along the river, and that the stilted homes would also limit the impact on the delicate land. If construction workers found gopher tortoises, which are known to live on the land, they would relocate them.

"This project complies with all applicable regulations," he said, noting that the planning commission approved the proposal and that no government agencies opposed it.

As they have since 2006, residents who oppose the development blasted the proposal. The skinny spit, at 300 feet wide, simply wasn't mean for homes, they said.

The Little Manatee River is near the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve, and holds a special designation as one of the state's Outstanding Florida Waters.

"The river is an attraction to fishers, boaters and ecotourists," Bev Griffiths, chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, told commissioners. "We call on you to protect this valuable asset."

Three years ago, commissioners originally rejected a request to build 25 homes at Mill Bayou. Developers appealed the decision, promising to reduce the number of homes to 22 before it was eventually approved. Residents were outraged.

This time around, they were pleased.

"The process worked, and the commission did the right thing," said Mariella Smith, a Ruskin activist. "Everybody gets zoning with the land they buy. You can ask for more, but shouldn't expect you'll get it."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

Hillsborough County rejects Little Manatee River development 04/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 4:31am]
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