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In Manatee County, proposed changes would allow developers to build closer to wetlands

A lake shoreline with wildlife and plants
Cathy Carter
WUSF Public Media
At issue, is a proposal to reduce the required buffer zone when it comes to building near environmentally sensitive wetlands and watersheds.

If the board amends the wetlands regulations, it will be without the approval of the Manatee County Planning Commission which voted 4-2 last week against recommending any changes.

On a recent hot and hazy morning, Abbey Tyrna, paddles a bright yellow kayak near the shoreline of Lake Manatee.

The lake is a major source of water for Bradenton and other cities in Manatee County, providing 32 million gallons per day.

Recently, some residents have reported an earthy taste coming from their water faucets. The county put out a message to the public explaining that an ongoing blue-green algae bloom is the source of the off-putting taste in the water but said it was safe to drink.

“It is a cyanobacteria that many scientists say is from nutrient pollution," said Tyrna, a wetlands scientist and the executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Environmental groups say a plan to amend Manatee County's wetland protections will only make problems like algal blooms and red tide more frequent.

At issue, is a proposal to reduce the required buffer zonewhen it comes to building near environmentally sensitive wetlands.

A fisherman with back to camera, sits on a dock at a lake. Fishing poles are to his right.
Cathy Carter
WUSF Public Media
Wetlands are protected ecosystems because they perform a wide variety of important functions like improving water quality, reducing storm damage and providing habitat for wildlife.

Will buffer zones be reduced?

"Buffers are land areas that surround some sort of natural asset,” said Tyrna. “Think lakes, wetlands, rivers, streams and bays that buffer the influence of humans."

Manatee County currently requires a 30- to 50-foot buffer between wetlands and development.

That is at least twice the size required by the state. But a proposal before the Board of Commissioners would remove local regulations, deferring rules for wetland buffers to the state minimum.

Betsy Benac, a former Manatee County commissioner, says that would impact Manatee as well as neighboring counties.

"In Manatee County, we have the headwaters for the Myakka River, which of course is a tributary to the Peace River, which provides drinking water supply for Manatee County, for Charlotte, DeSoto, and Sarasota. So, we're all interconnected,” Benac said. “Everyone should be concerned.”

If Manatee commissioners approve the rules change, it would make the county an outlier when it comes to local wetlands protections. Sarasota, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties all have stricter regulations than the state.

So why would Manatee County consider loosening restrictions?

A consultant says the county’s wetland regulations are redundant because state rules already protect wetlands. However, local governments can adopt stricter regulations, which the county has had in place for decades.

Land use attorney Daniel DeLisi was hired as a consultant to review Manatee County's comprehensive plan for wetlands protections.
Manatee County Government
Land use attorney Daniel DeLisi was hired as a consultant to review Manatee County's comprehensive plan for wetlands protections.

An argument against local regulations

At a recent hearing before the Manatee County Planning Commission, Daniel DeLisi, a land-use attorney hired as a consultant by the county, said science doesn't support a case for greater local protections.

"Both have the same intent, to protect the natural environment,” DeLisi said. “I believe the state does a great job of doing that. So, from that standpoint, you don't need two sets of different regulations to get to the same intent."

It's a similar argument DeLisi made as a witness in a pair of legal challenges to Manatee County's regulations. Local developer Carlos Beruff filed those lawsuits, but judges ruled in favor of the county.

Beruff and several of the region's biggest developers, including Neal Land & Neighborhoods and Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc., have donated to the political campaigns of all of the current Manatee County commissioners.

Each of those companies have won approval to build thousands of new homes in Manatee County.

Construction vehicles on new master home bulding site.
Cathy Carter
WUSF Public Media
Marisol, a new development by Neal Communities, is being built in eastern Manatee County on State Road 64 near Lake Manatee State Park.

And as first reported by the Bradenton Times, it was the Manatee-Sarasota Building Association that initiated changing the county'sland use code. Manatee County Commissioner Mike Rahn is a past president of the group. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed Ray Turner, the association's current treasurer, to the commission.

Former Commissioner Benac, who also once served as Manatee County’s assistant planning director and was an appointed member of the Board of Zoning Appeals, says the proposal would be a big step back.

"Florida was developed at a time when there were not many environmental regulations,” Benac said. “You know, wetlands were seen as something to get rid of to drain to ditch and to revert back to the practices that are causing so many problems now, makes absolutely no sense."

Residents voice their concerns

If the board amends the wetlands regulations, they'll do so without the approval of the Manatee County Planning Commission, which voted 4-2 last week against recommending any changes.

The four planning commissioners who opposed said they either couldn’t see how the changes benefited the public or that they did not have enough information to make a decision.

That meeting was well attended by residents who came to weigh in on the issue.

Manatee County resident John Taylor said the region’s water quality issues would lead to a decline in tourism.

“If our waters are tainted, no one's going to vacation and come visit,” Taylor said. “They're not going to rent houses if we have smelly waterways full of dead fish."

The Manatee County commissioners do not have to follow the Planning Commission recommendations and frequently don’t. WUSF reached out to all seven county commissioners ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

District 7 commissioner George Kruse was the only one to respond.

“The current wetland regulations within Manatee County are not “duplicative,” he wrote in an email. "They are local regulations we have historically felt best protected our wetlands and waterways. I have no reason to doubt that these local regulations still provide that protection beyond the state minimums. I see absolutely no benefit to lessening these protections at this time.”

Abbey Tyrna of Suncoast Waterkeeper at Lake Manatee
Abbey Tyrna of Suncoast Waterkeeper at Lake Manatee.

Back at Lake Manatee, the algae is less present as Abbey Tyrna paddles further from shore but that's not the case at Palma Sola Bay in Bradenton, where fishermen have recently reported an algal bloom which stretches for acres.

"So, when we reduce protections around natural assets what we're really doing is we're saying we don't value that service that this natural asset provides,” said Tyrna. “Instead, we value the homes that are going to be built instead."

Exiting Lake Manatee State Park, a short mile and a half drive on State Route 64, concrete pillars appear on a former cow pasture. Coming soon, a new community with close to 200 new homes that promise a coastal theme and "maintenance free living."

Commissioners will consider changes to the comprehensive plan that would lessen protections for wetlands at a public meeting Thursday.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.