Manatee County officials OK cuts to wetlands protections. But it’s not a done deal yet.

Existing protections for local wetlands could be erased after Manatee County officials voted Thursday afternoon to approve the next step in the process.

Despite protests from a crowd of opponents, the Board of County Commissioners is moving forward with changes that reduce current wetland buffers. The changes could jeopardize local water quality, according to conservation groups and environmental scientists.

Wetlands are often described as the “kidneys” of the environment because they absorb stormwater runoff and harmful nutrients that can impact water quality, according to the University of Florida. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also notes that wetlands are “storage areas” that reduce flooding impacts.

Manatee County’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code, which provides guidelines and instructions for local development, could be updated to roll back the size of wetland buffers. While the county requires a buffer of at least 30 feet, the changes would default to the 25-foot minimum required by state law.

After a similar public hearing last week, Manatee County’s Planning Commission said it did not recommend the proposed wetland changes, arguing that there was not enough data to prove that it would not harm water quality and local wildlife.

But the Manatee County Commission is not bound by that board’s decision. After more than four hours of debate and public comment, commissioners voted 6-1 to transmit the changes to the state for feedback.

Commissioner George Kruse voted against the transmittal and is the only board member to express concern about the proposed changes.

The Bradenton Times reported in April how the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, which has ties to several county commissioners, sent the county a list of proposed changes for the land use code.

“I’m not going to voluntarily give up my rights to do what’s in the best interest of my county as an elected official of that county to somebody else just because it’s being asked,” Kruse said. “Somebody needs to come to me and show me scientific proof on why I need to lower the buffer.”

To lead the changes, county officials hired Daniel DeLisi, a planning consultant with ties to local developers such as Carlos Beruff’s Medallion Home, Lennar Homes, Pulte Homes and D.R. Horton. DeLisi wrote a staff report explaining the county’s ability to “eliminate redundancy and duplication in the permitting of wetland impacts” by relying on state and federal rules.

“I do want to say unequivocally that these changes do not cause impacts to wetlands,” DeLisi said, prompting laughter from a crowd of more than 30 residents who spoke out against the proposal.

The Planning Commission voted not to recommend changes that would scale back the county’s wetland protection rules on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, but the Manatee County Commission voted 6-1 in favor of moving the process along. Daniel DeLisi, a hired consultant with ties to local developers, speaks to the Planning Commission in this Bradenton Herald file photo.

At that time, Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, who serves as chairman of the board, interrupted DeLisi’s presentation with a warning about respecting speakers during public meetings.

“I get the rhetoric and I understand the comments that are being made,” DeLisi continued. “But let me just be clear: when you already have two layers of government, in this instance, that are providing wetland regulations, by deferring to those levels of government, that doesn’t cause an impact to wetlands.”

Van Ostenbridge said he supported the changes because it removes a layer of government from the development process while also giving landowners more flexibility to build on their property.

“I think the onus should be on the government. We should have to justify to (landowners) why it is necessary for the public good to take their land from them,” Van Ostenbridge said, arguing that larger buffers reduce the land available for development. “I just feel like we all have the same intention. We want clean water. We want a healthy environment. But we also want to protect private property rights.”

“I have all the information I need to make a decision,” Commissioner Jason Bearden said after more than three hours of discussion. “I don’t believe in more government regulation. I never have and never will.”

But residents, including local water quality experts, shared concerns about the wetland buffer changes during a public comment session that lasted for more than two hours.

“I’m glad that you need science because I came to bring it,” Abbey Tyrna, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, told commissioners during a 10-minute presentation on the importance of wetlands. “Larger buffers do more than smaller buffers. That is written in every textbook.”

“I don’t think aiming for the minimum should ever be our objective,” said Phillip Harnish, a Manatee County resident.

The proposed wetland changes will be sent to the state for review, and another public hearing to determine whether they will be approved will be held in the coming months.

Manatee County officials approved a step toward reduced wetland buffers, which would make more land for development and could harm local water quality, according to local water quality experts. The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s roughly 100-acre wetland preserve in the fishing village of Cortez is shown in this Bradenton Herald file photo.