Manatee County Commission votes to gut local wetland protections
Written by WSLR News on Monday, August 21, 2023
Commissioners say that state regulations are just fine. But residents, environmental activists and scientists all urged local officials not to go through with the plan.
By Sophia Brown
Original Air Date: August 18, 2023
Johannes Werner: The Manatee County Commission, in response to pressure from a regional building industry association yesterday voted to gut local wetland protections, saying that state regulations are just fine. In packed meetings, Manatee County residents, environmental activists and scientists urged local officials not to go through with the plan. WSLR reporter Sophia Brown has the details.
Host: For four hours yesterday, the Manatee County Commission land-use meeting had been full of video evidence, graphics from environmental studies and public commenters unanimously asking the board to retain the county’s regulations for protecting wetlands and wetland buffers, instead of deferring to the state. Four hours of this, and it took the board only about 30 seconds to vote 6-1 to do the very thing the public had implored them not to do.
The Manatee County Commission voted to amend the segments of its comprehensive plan that have to do with wetland conservation. Traditionally controlled by the local government, the board instead voted to pass them along to the state for review. A second public hearing will be scheduled at a later date for a final approval of these new state sanctioned regulations.
But letting Florida make this decision on behalf of Manatee County could backfire for a few reasons. The big one is that rescinding local government control of wetland buffer regulations could mean shrinking this buffer from 50 feet to 25 feet. Wetland buffers are the physical distance required between developments and wetlands which provide habitats for local wildlife, reduce the risk of floods by absorbing storm water runoff, and purify the water that passes through them.
Even so, the primary argument was that the current regulations in Manatee County overlap unnecessarily with those of the state, and that few studies exist to show that reducing wetland buffers has significant impacts. This notion was supported by the consultant that Manatee County hired for this issue, Dan DeLisi, but the audience wasn’t buying it.
Dan DeLisi: So I do want to say, unequivocally, that these amendments do not cause impacts to wetlands.
Host: What’s more, the science presented to the board by various speakers directly contradicts this. One speaker, Dr. Abbey Tyrna, with the environmental group Suncoast Waterkeeper, came equipped with a slideshow presentation citing studies that demonstrate that the larger the wetland buffer, the better the water.
In fact, all of the 33 total public commenters asked the board not to turn control over to the state and weaken the wetland protections in Manatee County. Other speakers included local fishermen Rusty Chinnis, who showed the board drone footage of Manatee County’s deteriorated coastal conditions, and argued that reducing wetland buffers will only make things worse.
Another speaker read a recent investigative report by the Bradenton Times revealing that DeLisi had previously provided similar testimony against local wetland protections in court – on behalf of developers suing the county. The county prevailed in both.
One speaker, Carol Felts, was only able to speak for about a minute before being escorted away by police. The reason? She implied that she and many others wouldn’t be voting to reelect Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge if the board voted to change the wetland protection amendments.
Carol Felts: We’re facing an election in 2024 where we have a majority of seats on the board that are going to be open.
Kevin Van Ostenbridge: Ma’am, we’re—
CF: [Overlapping] Oh, Kevin, let’s not start this.
KVO: That is not going to get you anywhere.
CF: Yes, it is.
KVO: No, you’re out of order.
CF: [Overlapping] So—no, I am not out of order sir. I have not yet begun to start. So anyways, regarding the wetlands issue, let me be succinct. We are going to be basing our votes in 2024 on how you conduct yourselves with the wetlands issue right now. Please bear that in mind when you vote, that we will make this an issue in 2024. Thank you.
KVO: [Overlapping] Ma’am, you are out of order, we are focused on, we are focused on the item that is—[hits hammer] Ma’am, you’re going to listen, or you’ll be escorted out of the room. Thank you. Thank you ma’am. Thank you ma’am, you’re out of order. Thank you. Thank you ma’am. Thank you ma’am, you’re out of order.
Host: While most of the board sat quietly and refrained from commenting on the matter, Commissioner George Kruse was the sole dissenting voice, wanting to keep Manatee County in charge of its own wetland protections and maintain the 50 foot buffer currently in place. He passionately echoed Dr. Tyrna’s claims that, generally speaking, larger buffers are better.
But he faced opposition from both DeLisi and Chair Van Ostenbridge throughout the course of the meeting, who both argued that reducing these buffers equals protecting private property rights.
KVO: In this situation, ultimately, the government is taking land from a private property owner. In many cases, sometimes it’s the government, obviously, but you are taking land from someone. Mr. DeLisi, would you agree with that statement that by doing this, you’re you’re at least taking entitlements from that land away?
DD: You are. You’re you’re taking land, you’re requiring a utilization of that land for a buffer.
Host: Kruse also addressed the elephant in the room: how little support this initiative has from Manatee County residents, the constituents of this County Commission, and that the party that would benefit most from these reduced protections are private developers.
George Kruse: When is the other side going to come up and speak? When is the other side going to line up and start talking about great cutting wetland buffers are? Nobody, nobody here. And right now I’m looking out in this room. I can see right now three developer engineers. I can see a land use attorney. None of them came up. They’re in the room during public comment. Know why they didn’t come up? Because there’s no way they’re going to go on the record supporting this, because it is it’s a terrible idea. And there’s no way they’re going to put their name and their face behind supporting gutting our environmental wetland protection.
Host: But eventually, these hours of debate and research culminated in a quick 6-1 vote to refer to the state for how Manatee County will move forward with wetland protections versus the interests of developers. This vote does not mean that all wetland protections are off the table. The board will still need to hold a second vote based on what recommendations the state sends its way.
This has been Sophia Brown reporting for WSLR News.