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Aqua by the Bay judge hears conflicting testimony about wetlands permit

Environmental experts challenge developer’s claims during administrative hearing

A former Manatee County commissioner and several environmental experts testified Wednesday that the controversial Aqua by the Bay development should be denied a special wetlands permit because it does not achieve its stated goals of “preservation and enhancement” of mangroves, seagrasses and other environmentally sensitive areas on Sarasota Bay.

Their comments completed two days of conflicting testimony before Judge D. R. Alexander of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, who conducted the proceedings at the Sarasota office of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

A day earlier, witnesses for the developers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection claimed the disputed permit will ensure preservation of crucial wetlands in perpetuity.

Alexander returned to Tallahassee to issue a written ruling in the case. Before doing so, he must weigh evidence and opinions presented during the two-day hearing by the developers and the DEP, as well as counter-arguments proffered by petitioners challenging the permit the DEP intends to authorize.

In October, the Manatee County Commission unanimously approved a project by developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman called Aqua by the Bay, a community on 529 acres largely between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay. The Cargor Partners plan calls for 2,894 residences and 78,000 square feet of commercial space in the bayfront area commonly called Long Bar Pointe.

As Long Bar Pointe LLP, the developers filed for a DEP permit to create and maintain a “mitigation bank” along two miles of shoreline. A mitigation bank is a site where a developer can receive credits for enhancing or restoring the environment. The credits can then be sold, typically for $100,000 or more each, to offset, or mitigate, wetlands impacts elsewhere in the region.

The application to the DEP calls for removing invasive Brazilian peppers from marshes, uplands and mangroves; planting native vegetation; and obtaining a separate permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to install buoy markers in state waters outside the bank cautioning boaters to stay out of the seagrasses. Seagrasses can be damaged by boat propellers.

The developers would also reserve the right to apply for a separate DEP permit to trim more than 36 acres of mangroves to a height of 12 feet.

Construction would be barred in the mitigation area.