RUSKIN — Mill Bayou, a sliver of grassy wetlands that juts into the Little Manatee River, was once again saved from residential development.
In a 6-1 vote Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners denied for a second time a developer's petition to re-zone the 300-foot coastal high-hazard area to build eight homes.
In 2006, commissioners approved a separate part of the project, which calls for 22 homes built on the east side of the river. But in April of 2009, they shot down the plan to develop the 46-acre sliver in the middle.
The mangrove-lined land, off Seventh Street SW, east of S Tamiami Trail, is called coastal high-hazard because of a risk for storm surge. Commissioners worried about putting residents in flooding danger and disturbing the river habitat.
The developer, Little Manatee LLC, appealed. A court ruled that commissioners did not cite sufficient evidence to support their concerns, and the developer secured a remand.
So for the second time, the proposal went before the county's planning commission and zone hearing master — again earning stamps of approval on its way back to the commission.
Throughout the process the developer's lawyer, Richard Davis, said his clients made more concessions than are required to mitigate environmental worries.
The homes would be raised on stilts, Davis reminded commissioners Tuesday. Evacuation plans and information about nearby shelters would be distributed to residents.
Builders would replace any trees that they remove, and the aesthetics of the river would not be spoiled, Davis said. He reiterated that county water and utilities would be hooked up to the property, which is at the edge of the urban service area, eliminating a need for septic tanks.
Raising his voice and gripping the podium, Davis again reminded commissioners that they have approved projects in similar coastal high-hazard areas before.
"We are going beyond what is required," Davis said. "The evidence is before you, commissioners. The evidence that was before you in 2009 reaches out and demands approval."
Then came the community activists, who pleaded that commissioners stick to their first instincts.
"People all over this county are opposed because like the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, the Little Manatee River belongs to all of us," said Mariella Smith, of Ruskin, pointing to nearly 50 people who stood up in opposition to the project.
Vivienne Handy, a biologist from Wimauma called the plan "a poster child for bad development." Plants and animals that inhabit Mill Bayou could be eradicated even if developers plant new trees, Handy said.
Joe Lancaster, who lives at the end of the road across from the spit, said his property was "a little slice of heaven." He worried that removing sturdy vegetation and loading the land with houses would lead to dangerous erosion.
A few minutes later, commissioners cast their votes and the room erupted in applause.
"I am not opposed to growth and development, but we must make our growth and development smart," Commissioner Kevin White said before the vote. "At times we need to look and listen to the people that are most affected and impacted by these decisions."
The project may meet all the county criteria for re-zoning, but that's not reason enough to disturb the environment, White said. He mentioned the oil spill in the gulf as an example.
"Just because we have done things in the past, we don't have to continue doing them in the future," White said.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe agreed. "We spend half of our lives listening to experts tell us certain things will never happen, and then we spend the rest, the other half, talking to other experts who are telling us how to fix the problem after it's already occurred," Sharpe said.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner added that he worried taxpayers would be on the hook for infrastructure improvement costs if the site floods.
Commissioner Jim Norman cast the lone dissenting vote.
The vote was swift.
Asked for his reaction, Davis said, "no comment," and hurried out.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813)661-2442 or [email protected]