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Ex-U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff withdraws controversial wetlands request

Former U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff has withdrawn his state permit application for an unusual wetland mitigation bank that was challenged by environmental groups.

Beruff's proposed 262-acre Long Bar Pointe mitigation bank in Manatee County also faces trouble on another front: at least one federal agency has suggested the Army Corps of Engineers should deny its federal permit.

"In a nutshell, what we recommended was that the bank not go forward as currently proposed," Ginny Fay, assistant regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Wednesday.

Beruff, a former chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District who last week handily lost the GOP primary to incumbent U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Peter Logan, president of Beruff's Medallion Homes.

The Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and Suncoast Waterkeeper were among the parties that challenged Beruff's state permit for the mitigation bank on Sarasota Bay. They learned over the weekend that Beruff's attorney had asked Friday to withdraw the permit application.

Federation president Manley Fuller hailed the withdrawal as "wonderful news that this very destructive project has been dropped."

A wetlands mitigation bank is supposed to look and function like a natural wetland. But Beruff's bank, which was to be created on land adjacent to his controversial Long Bar Pointe development in Manatee County, included a feature unique among mitigation banks:

He wanted to cut back 40 acres of native mangroves now growing on the property. When a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked him in July why he would do that, he replied: "For the obvious reason. The view!"

Cutting mangroves to create a better view for his development — originally envisioned as a waterfront resort with a hotel and conference center, homes, condos, offices, stores and what Beruff called "a lifestyle marina" along Sarasota Bay — runs counter to what a mitigation bank is supposed to do, say opponents.

Mitigation banking is a growing, yet little known, private industry in Florida. In the past decade the industry has doubled in size, increasing from 45 banks to 90.

Since 1990, federal policy has required developers like Beruff to replace any wetlands they destroy, an expensive undertaking that frequently fails.

Enter the mitigation banker. He or she buys land that used to be a swamp and restores it, or preserves existing swampland and removes invasive plants. Regulators then calculate how much those changes are worth in "credits" which the banker can sell, each one equal to an acre of pristine wetlands.

Developers can then skip the expense and headache of trying to make up for the destroyed wetlands and simply write a check to the banker, sometimes paying as much as $100,000 per credit.

Beruff's bank, according to opponents such as former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, is not a real bank. They contend it's just a ruse to allow him to dredge the channel to his development and chop up the mangroves. They point to a 150-foot wide gap in the waterfront side of the mitigation bank as the place where the channel could still go.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit reviewer raised a lot of concerns about Beruff's application, only to be overridden by his superiors.

The DEP permit reviewer, Matt Wilson, wrote in a March memo that, during a meeting with Beruff, he said the project was "somewhat unconventional" for being located next to "high-intensity mixed use" development. Such a location "poses a challenge to (the) sustainability and viability" of the site, a crucial point in state rules.

The other problem, Wilson wrote, is that Beruff had proposed doing so little work at the mitigation bank that it was "little more than what would be expected to occur in the 'without bank' scenario."

After Wilson's superiors met with Beruff separately, they informed him that they were changing the calculations he had come up with and now the application looked fine. In April, the DEP announced it planned to approve the permit.

McClash contended Beruff used his longtime political connections with Gov. Rick Scott to muscle the permit through. Beruff contributed $24,000 to Scott's two campaigns, served on his transition team, and put another $75,000 into Scott's "Let's Get to Work" political action committee. DEP Secretary Jon Steverson denied that, saying he was "treated just like everybody else."

Mitigation bank permits need both state and federal permits to operate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to make a decision on Beruff's federal permit by Sept. 23, a spokeswoman said.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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