The heavily damaged mangrove forest at Aqua.
Photo credit: Suncoast Waterkeeper
Gnarled mangrove forests once dominated Florida’s coastlines. Hundreds of herons, egrets, pelicans, and stunning pink roseate spoonbills squabbled in their branches for the best spots to sleep and nest. Crocodiles swam underneath. The fishes that have sustained life in Florida for so long, laid their eggs and matured in the twisted mangrove roots.
The mangroves sequestered carbon – more carbon than tropical rainforests – keeping our planet cool. (1)
They stabilized our coastline, protecting us from the hurricanes that are increasingly ripping through the state unimpeded. A study by the Nature Conservancy found that during hurricane Irma, our remaining mangroves “averted $1.5 billion in storm damages.” (2)
Mangroves have protected us from climate change and storms. They have sheltered the fishes that we eat and the wildlife that we love. They have contributed hugely to our economy. So why is it that around 35% of the world’s mangroves have already been destroyed? (3)
As the authors of the groundbreaking book, Save the Birds, put it, “We know the price of everything [we know the price of a waterfront development, for example], but we appreciate the value of very few things. We must learn… that many things have no price, yet their value may still be beyond measure.” (4)
This attitude of price over value is what has recently damaged one of the last large swaths of mangrove forests in Manatee County at the Aqua development. Formerly, Aqua by the Bay and Long Bar Pointe, the Aqua property is owned by Medallion Home, founded by developer Carlos Beruff.
According to the Bradenton Times, “[The Aqua] land had always been identified as a wetland until it was delineated by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 2011—while Beruff was serving on its board.” Before that delineation could expire, Medallion Home used a loophole to clear the property, removing any wetlands and making it easier to get a permit for development. Medallion also illegally cleared part of the neighboring Legends Bay property and land belonging to Manatee County as part of a conservation easement. (5) The stop work order issued by the county was disobeyed.
In 2018 a bald eagle nest was cut down at Aqua, ridding Medallion of a protected species which could get in the way of the development. In 2016, an eagle nest on the property had simply vanished without a trace. (6)
This year, Attorney Edward Vogler attempted to have Manatee County amend their Comprehensive Plan in a way that could open the door to mangrove and wetland destruction, on behalf of Medallion Home and other developers.
Despite these repeated violations of trust and the law, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has issued the developer a permit to trim the virgin mangrove forest on the Aqua Property.
“Medallion appears not to have followed Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) regulation when they cut the mangroves,” says Rusty Chinnis, Chairman of Suncoast Waterkeeper. When asked if Suncoast Waterkeeper (SCWK), a group which has challenged activities at Aqua for years, agreed with FDEP’s report which stated that the mangroves “appear to be healthy,” Chinnis said, “No, procedural requirements (before and after images) that were not followed were noted but nothing was mentioned about the mangrove cutting, which is excessive in areas and the debris that was left on site as evidenced by images Suncoast Waterkeeper took.”
A giant red mangrove nearly cut in half and defoliated at Aqua.
In Suncoast Waterkeeper’s May 2022 newsletter, Medallion’s mangrove trimming permit and mangrove violations on the Aqua property were summarized:
1. All mangrove trimming will be completed by hand & vehicles are not authorized to be within the mangrove areas
2. All trimmings over 3 feet long or 3 inches in diameter will be carried out and properly disposed of
3. All reasonable efforts will be made to remove as much trimmed material as possible with remaining trimmings evenly distributed
4. Photographs will be taken and submitted to the Department 14 days proper to each trimming and again within 14 days following the trimming activity, and a joint site visit with Department staff within 30 days following each trimming…
It is obvious to any observer that trimmed material greater than 3 feet was not removed. Third, no material was removed [see images below]. The last violation… was one that the Department actually cited in its report. As a result, the property owner has 30 days to provide the Department with pre- and post-photos.
Mangrove branches lie on the ground at Aqua.
Photo credit: Suncoast WaterKeeper
A large chunk of mangrove trunk lying on the ground at Aqua. It is approximately a foot in diameter.
Chinnis stated that he has sent letters to Florida officials addressing the issue. “We’re weighing what our next move is going to be.”
Chinnis believes that Manatee County should start a program to enforce mangrove protection laws. As reported by the Anna Maria Island Sun, Justin Bloom, founder and board member of Suncoast Waterkeeper shares this opinion.
When asked if the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) would consider picking up the slack where some believe FDEP is falling short, Chinnis said, “That is going to be a question we’re going to have to take to them… I did bring up the subject with [Chairman of the BoCC, Kevin Van Ostenbridge] and he said basically that’s the state’s job. And it’s true. It is the state’s job.” However, noted Chinnis, “individual counties can regulate mangroves.”
It’s already too late for Aqua. It’s done. The mangroves are devastated. The efforts of Suncoast Waterkeeper will be invaluable in showing developers and politicians that we care, but what will become of the birds that depended on the Aqua mangroves? Or the anglers who make their living off the fish which dwell within the mangrove roots?
We’ve seen what happens when politicians see worse consequences from disobeying powerful developers than they do from harming their own voters and we cannot turn back the clock. However, we can stop this from happening again elsewhere in our county. You can help stop it from happening again by voting for politicians who have the good of their citizens at heart, who put public interests over lining developers’ deep pockets. “As little as reaching out to elected officials to let them know they are expected to represent the ‘common good.’ Write letters to the editor and pen opinion pieces. Attend Commission meetings and speak out,” advises Chinnis. Let them know that we are watching and that we care.
The setting sun reflects off one of Manatee County’s last healthy stands of mangroves.
Photo by Karen Willey
4 Rudolf L. Schreiber, Antony W. Diamond, Rodger Tory Peterson, and Walter Cronkite. Save the Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1989