Two years ago, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature disbanded the state's growth management agency, complaining it hurt the economy. Now it falls to ordinary Floridians to stop even the worst development projects. And last month — in one case, at least — they were successful.
Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff wanted to build a grandiose resort on Sarasota Bay. Named Long Bar Pointe, the 463-acre tract, looking west toward Longboat Key, was designed to include thousands of homes, office and convention space, hundreds of hotel rooms and a marina for 300 boats. As Beruff told the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman, he envisioned the resort to rival the Breakers in Palm Beach. "We were trying to create an icon," he said, something "to lure people there."
But people are already there. And they made themselves heard last month, when the Manatee County Commission sat through a 12-hour hearing on the project, with 1,000 people in attendance at the county convention center. Environmentalists, anglers, local businesses and historians opposed the project for the damage it would cause to the fishing economy and the historic character of Cortez, a century-old fishing village just around the corner.
Before the state eliminated the Department of Community Affairs, the project would not have gotten this far. Joe McClash, who spent 20 years as a Manatee commissioner, said DCA would have objected to the plan. A former agency secretary, Tom Pelham, agreed.
The public outcry was the last, best chance to defeat it. And it was an uphill battle.
Beruff, the man behind Long Bar Pointe, is one of the most powerful people in Florida. He contributed heavily to Scott's campaign, and he and his partner also contributed to the commissioners. But the enormous crowd, the thousands who signed petitions and the collaboration between so many disparate groups with a shared stake in preserving something of Florida won out. Commissioners fashioned a deal that allows the residential portion of the development, but only after the marina was stripped from the project.
Of course, the project is not dead, and the developers can't say if they will try again for a marina. But the episode shows what Floridians need to do now that their state government has abandoned its responsibility.