I am fifteen years old and live in Manatee County. More than anything, I enjoy exploring our local environment, our land and waters. I love to watch ospreys dive for fish and spoonbills squabble in mangrove swamps.
Sometimes, when I talk with long-time residents of our area, they tell me that I should have seen Manatee fifty years ago. Back then, there were bountiful fish, few toxic algal blooms, expansive wetlands, and an overall healthier landscape. Reckless and greedy developers have since torn out many of our wildlands, resulting in loss of biodiversity, increased storm damage, and polluted waters. Our seagrass has declined hugely, our mangroves have all but disappeared, and red tide tortures our communities for unprecedented lengths of time.
To perpetuate this sad situation where corporate profits are valued over community wellbeing, developers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars slandering smart-growth politicians and promoting their own candidates. Every one of Manatee’s current county commissioners has strong ties to the development industry. Determined to refill their campaign coffers before the next election, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has opened the floodgates to uncontrolled development and environmental destruction. They have approved countless ruinous developments, weakened our Comprehensive Plan, and overridden the decisions of local governments. But their latest scheme promises to be one of the most disastrous yet. It’s a systemic change which threatens to allow unregulated destruction of Manatee’s remaining natural lands.
Manatee County’s Land Development Code (LDC) and Comprehensive Plan are responsible for laying out regulations and procedures for land use. The goal of the LDC and Comp Plan is to plan land use and protect communities and resources. The county commission will soon vote on changes to the LDC and Comp Plan that were requested by the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (BIA).
Emails reveal that BIA president Jon Mast, multiple county employees, Commissioner Ballard’s husband, and disgraced then-county administrator Scott Hopes met in January to discuss changes the BIA wanted to the LDC and Comp Plan. The meeting and changes were kept secret. The proposed changes, targeted mainly at gutting environmental protections, were written by local land use attorney Scott Rudacille. Rudacille is highly connected to local builders including political power-broker Carlos Beruff. (Beruff has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of county commissioners.) Before the redlined (proposed) LDC was leaked, the county intended to present changes as if their staff–not the very industry which would benefit–had initiated them.
The content of the redlined documents is disturbing: protections for wetlands, our most valuable natural resources, have been removed. Along with deleting the Comp Plan’s policy 220.127.116.11. (which prohibits the destruction of wetlands) county staff slashed much of policy 18.104.22.168. This means developers would be allowed to destroy wetlands without taking any action to mitigate the devastation.
Staff also removed the county’s requirements for wetland buffers of up to 50 feet, stripping protections down to the state’s bare minimum of a 25-foot average. Larger, more functional wetland buffers would no longer be required between developments and Outstanding Florida Waters or Aquatic Preserves. Studies show this would lead to increased water pollution and degrade Manatee residents’ quality of life. The buffers currently required by the LDC are already inadequate to safeguard natural resources and avert declining water quality. Buffers must be at least 100 feet to be fully functional. The state's minimum of a 25-foot average does nothing to safeguard resources.
Denying this unjustified gutting of our LDC and Comp Plan should be an easy decision. However, the BCC has a massive conflict of interest in this matter, one that appears strong enough to make this Faustian board disregard their constituents’ wellbeing. Commissioner Rahn is the former president of the BIA. BIA Treasurer Raymond Turner was just appointed to fill a vacant seat on the board. Commissioner Ballard’s husband worked for BIA. Floridians United for a Sustainable Economy PAC, which is funded by the BIA, has contributed to the campaigns of all the commissioners. The BIA’s members include developers Patrick Neal and Carlos Beruff, who have both poured tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of our BCC. Convincing the commissioners to do the right thing won’t be easy.
As red tide and gumbo algae make life miserable for local communities, as starving manatees and poisoned sea turtles wash up on our beaches, we are experiencing the effects of bad governance. Now developers are demanding we turn bad governance into no governance and allow them to trade our future for profit. In ten years, what will life be like in Manatee County? How much worse will our lives be as seagrass dies, fisheries collapse, our tourism industry fades away, manatee and dolphin populations go extinct, and severe red tides become a year-round phenomenon?
It sounds like Rachel Carson’s dystopian essay, A Fable for Tomorrow in which she imagined the demise of both nature and humanity at the hands of pesticide corporations. That threat has so far been averted, in no small part due to Carson herself, but the threat of overdevelopment now takes its place. The only thing that made a difference, the only thing that stopped the slow poisoning of the Earth by DDT, was public outcry. Public outcry. That is how we make a difference in this world.
I asked former 22-year Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, what could possibly convince the BCC not to cater to the BIA’s demands. McClash, a smart-growth proponent who lost his seat on the commission after a large-scale, developer-funded smear campaign, answered without hesitation. “The public needs to get out and tell the commission that this isn’t supported by science, that it isn’t supported by the community.”
Our nature, our waters, and our communities cannot withstand this abuse. Without the LDC and Comp Plan’s regulations, our natural resources will collapse. Will you tolerate our quality of life being sold to developers? Contact the commissioners and tell them that you won’t put up with this destruction. Sign Suncoast Waterkeeper’s petition against BIA’s demands. Attend the commission hearing on the LDC and Comp Plan changes on August 17th. Don’t let the commission sell our future.