After initially recommending project, staff objects to building heights, densities and proximity to Sarasota Bay

MANATEE COUNTY — Having repeatedly recommended approval of the controversial Aqua by the Bay development, the Manatee County planning staff released a surprising report Saturday stating it now recommends that the County Commission deny the developer's land use application for a 529-acre site.

No one could have been more surprised than the picketers on Cortez Road, who were letting motorists know about their objections to Aqua by the Bay on Saturday afternoon.

While the residents rallied against the project planned to be built along Sarasota Bay, the county staff released the agenda for a Wednesday public hearing for which Aqua by the Bay is the only topic.

After the county Planning Commission voted 3-1 on Thursday to recommend denial, county planners evidently reconsidered their collective opinion. They now agree with the Planning Commission and hundreds of citizens who have expressed objections in person and in writing that the mixed-use community on Sarasota Bay is “inconsistent” with the county’s land development code and comprehensive land use plan. The staff report specifically refers to building heights, the requested densities and the project’s proximity to Sarasota Bay.

“This is a BIG ONE,” former County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, an organizer of the opposition, quickly stated in an email. “Staff is now recommending DENIAL!!!! I don’t know about you but for me this is a huge Alleluia Praise the Lord!”

Von Hahmann still urged objectors to the project to attend the 9 am. hearing Wednesday and reinforce the county staff’s new findings to the County Commission.

Pete Logan, spokesman for the development team, said the county “staff’s review remains supportive of the plans” but appears to be influenced recently by a change in an opinion by a consultant. “We’ve worked through a public process for 25 months understanding that compatibility and consistency were moving along smoothly, and these recent concerns had not been shared with our engineering team.

“We are working to ensure Aqua by the Bay is a neighborhood that will benefit the entire community and the environment. And we remain positive that, in the end, it will be a point of pride for Manatee County.”

Developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman’s Cargor Partners want to build on waterfront property commonly known as Long Bar Pointe. The county rejected a previous development proposal, called Long Bar Pointe, because it included a marina and a channel that environmentalists and Cortez fishermen said would harm fisheries in Sarasota Bay. The developers sued the county but lost in Circuit Court and appellate court.

Cargor submitted a new application called Aqua by the Bay — a 529-acre development that could eventually include 2,384 multi-family units, 510 single-family homes and 78,000 square feet of commercial space.

Among other complaints, protestors objected to the height of the proposed high-rises as incompatible with the area and disrupting the scenic vista of the last unspoiled stretch of Sarasota Bay coastline.

In May, the County Commission sent Cargor back to the drawing board saying its original plan lacked details about the number of high-rises. Cargor later stipulated that it was planning four buildings at 145 feet, 12 buildings at 95 feet and an undetermined number of buildings ranging from 36 to 75 feet.

Buildings exceeding 35 feet in height require special approval of the County Commission.

Opponents also strenuously objected to what the developers called “an estuary enhancement area” or “lagoon,” and the opposition called a “canal” or a “trench.”

The 2.5-mile, man-made waterway running the length of the property would separate existing mangroves from an elevated mainland that would be behind a “retaining wall.” Separating the wall from the waterway would be a slope of planted native vegetation, the developers stated.

Opponents countered that the barrier would be a common “seawall” and that it would deprive the mangroves of sediments. The new waterway, they argued, would block the mangroves’ ability to migrate onto uplands as sea levels rise.