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Manatee County officials sign off on cuts to wetlands protections

Bird in seagrass
Cathy Carter
WUSF Public Media
Manatee County commissioners voted to remove language in the county's Comprehensive Plan that provides additional protections for wetlands.

Despite protests from a crowd of opponents, the Manatee County Commission voted 5-1 to roll back local wetland protections in favor of defering to state minimum standards.

For decades, Manatee County has enforced strict rules when it comes to building near environmentally sensitive lands. But the county will now defer local wetland rules to meet the state minimum, effectively cutting the current buffer zone in half. 

A coalition of residents, scientists and environmental activists urged commissioners to keep the protections intact, saying minimum standards would only make issues like algal blooms and red tide worse. 

Manatee County resident Ashely Brown, a native landscape architect, told commissioners she did not understand why the county would consider reducing wetlands protections. 

“It seems like you don’t even try to care or understand how ecosystems work,” she said. “You have all these concerned citizens showing up, despite their day jobs, because they love nature. How can you not see that the more land you encroach on the more you affect it?” 

Deb Litz of Cortez said she was not a scientist but as a resident, could see the impacts of impaired water quality in Palma Sola Bay. 

“There is this brown muck, it stinks,” she said. “We want to support our local restaurants but you can’t even pull the boats up. It smells, there’s algae everywhere. This makes no sense to go backwards.” 

According to the nonprofit group Suncoast Waterkeeper, which works to promote and protect clean water, wetlands are protected ecosystems because they perform a wide variety of important functions; chief among them is their ability to clean up polluted water. 

But after several hours of public comment, the board voted 5-1 (Commissioner Raymond Turner was absent) to amend Manatee County’s land use plan to defer regulations to state minimum standards. 

District 6 Commissioner Jason Bearden invoked the Old Testament in arguing that the long-held local wetland buffer protections hurt land owners.

"When I need to make a decision on something, the first thing I do is, I go the word of God,” he said. “Some of you may not want to hear that but that's how I make decisions. So, Deuteronomy 27:17 says curses he who moves his neighbor's boundary mark, and all the people shall say, amen."

District 7 Commissioner George Kruse, the board’s lone dissenter, disagreed with the premise that land owners were impacted because buffer regulations are well known before a land purchase. 

"It’s a false narrative that it is inherently conservative to give people back their property without factoring in the conservation side of it and the environmental side of it and the water quality side of it,” he said. “You're taking one little piece of this and turning this into some sort of a constitutional conservative thing and it's just not." 

As first reported by the Bradenton Times, it was the Manatee-Sarasota Building Association that initiated changing the county's land use code.

Local developer Carlos 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 each of the elected Manatee County commissioners.

In a statement, Manatee County government said, "wetlands are already protected under existing state and federal regulations and the board’s primary objective is to gain efficiency while still achieving the same environmental results."


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