Posted on August 30, 2023
Have you ever made your way through a marsh? Tromped through a swamp? Waded in a wetland?
I have. It was soooo icky! And wet! Ewwww! I mean, I’ve seen some real prize-winners for swampiness.
No wonder Manatee County wants to get rid of their marshes, bogs, and swamps.
Sure, sure, sure, Florida’s wetlands filter out pollution, hold back floods, and recharge the aquifer, the source of our drinking water. Not to mention providing essential habitat for imperiled species. And of course, soaking up the carbon emissions that cause our climate to change.
But c’mon, y’all! They’re constantly getting in the way! How inconvenient for developers and phosphate miners!
That’s why it is totally understandable that the Manatee County Commission voted last week to make it easier to turn all those soggy spots into nice, clean pavement.
“We all want to protect our environment,” Commission Chairman Kevin Van Ostenbridge — who’s been a real estate salesman for 20 years — said during the commission meeting. “At the same time, we also have to protect private property rights, which are part of the foundation of this country.”
Of course, we have to protect the rights of property owners. Somehow, though, the folks who keep crying about property rights never worry about the rights of the owners whose property winds up inundated after those flood-absorbing wetlands have been turned into a slab of concrete.
But that wasn’t the prevailing sentiment last week in the coastal county between St. Petersburg and Sarasota.
“I thought it should be an easy 7-0 denial,” a disappointed Commissioner George Kruse, who wound up on the losing end of the 6-1 vote for abolishing wetlands protections, told me. “I don’t think anyone will forget this. This is so over the top — so egregious.”
How did the county named after Florida’s most adorable wildlife species, the gentle sea cow, wind up taking this extreme anti-environmental stance?
When you follow the path that led to this point, it makes perfect cents — er, I mean sense.
The man behind the curtain
Remember that scene in the “Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy and her friends are being threatened by the “great and powerful” wizard with the booming voice? Suddenly, little Toto pulls back a curtain and reveals that the “wizard” is actually just a con man who got lost.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” he commands, trying to yank it closed again.
Several people told me that the man behind the curtain for this Manatee marsh melee is developer Carlos Beruff, a politically influential guy I’ve been writing about for a decade.
“Beruff has been working on this for a number of years,” former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, who now publishes The Bradenton Times, told me this week.
Beruff — pronounced “beh-ROOF,” like a bad-tempered Doberman pinscher barking in your neighbor’s backyard — founded Medallion Home in Sarasota in 1984. He’s been a wizardly force in local development and state politics ever since.
Medallion’s attorney claimed the company was teetering on the brink of insolvency in 2010 when some buyers complained that Beruff had built their homes with contaminated Chinese drywall.
Nevertheless, Medallion survived, allowing Beruff to buy up big swaths of land throughout the region and donate great gobs of money to various politicians. The politicians have reciprocated by appointing him to a bunch of state boards, despite his — oh, let’s say “colorful” — record on ethics.
I bet Beruff thinks about Florida’s environment more often than your average government biologist. The difference is he thinks about it the way Vladmir Putin thinks about Ukraine — as something to be conquered.
Oh, the stories I could tell you about him! Once, he came up with an elaborate scheme to chop down 40 acres of mangroves adjacent to one of his developments. It was to be done in the name of environmental restoration, believe it or not. When I asked him why he’d even attempted such a thing, he replied: “For the obvious reason. The view!”
Beruff was particularly nettled by Manatee County’s wetlands protection rules, especially the section requiring developers to leave a 50-foot buffer zone around wetlands. That meant less land that he could build on. Such a waste!
Those wetland rules were written into the county’s comprehensive plan for future growth back in 1989, according to Rob Brown, who retired last year as the county’s environmental protection manager. In all the years since 1989, Brown told me, “There have been no complaints from anybody except for Carlos.”
Beruff did more than complain. He sued to overturn the wetland rules — twice. His expert witness in those cases was an unusual choice. Instead of a wetlands scientist, he chose a West Palm Beach land use planner named Dan DeLisi. Wetlands are not his field of expertise.
Perhaps that’s why Beruff lost. Twice.
But then, when the county commission decided to rewrite those wetland rules that were fine with everyone except Beruff, whom did the county hire for $25,000 as its expert?
Beruff’s man from the other side of the state, Dan DeLisi.
“It’s like we just won the Super Bowl, and we went out in the off-season and hired the quarterback from the losing team to run our team,” Kruse complained.
As that noted philosopher Gomer Pyle used to say: “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
The original suggestion to revamp the county’s wetland rules did not come directly from Beruff. Instead, according to The Bradenton Times, it came from the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association.
Several commissioners have close connections with that group. For instance, as The Bradenton Heraldreported, Ray Turner, who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Ron “I’m the Master Debater”DeSantis, is a real estate broker and the association’s secretary.
Then there’s Commissioner Mike Rahn, a real estate mortgage broker elected in 2022, who is its former president. Meanwhile Commissioner Amanda Ballard’s husband David was their lobbyist, according to The Bradenton Times.
In other words, the builders’ association is as tightly paired with the commissioners as a set of identical twins clinging to a winning lottery ticket.
“Unfortunately, what we have now is a county commission that’s more concerned with a developer’s profits than what’s in the public’s best interests,” said Glenn Compton of the venerable environmental group ManaSota-88.
Even so, the county didn’t have to hire DeLisi to do its wetlands review. Manatee was already paying several hundred thousand dollars to a St. Petersburg company called Kimley-Horn Inc. to review and update its 30-year-old comp plan, Kruse told me.
A wetlands expert from Kimley-Horn looked over Manatee County’s wetlands rules and said everything seemed fine, Kruse said. That wasn’t the answer that the county commissioners wanted, he said, so they sought a more cooperative expert.
Kruse was unable to tell me exactly who in county government had hired DeLisi when, as he put it, “there are 50 or so qualified wetlands experts” who are far closer than West Palm Beach. He also pointed out that Manatee County’s own staff remained silent throughout the whole discussion, an indication of how they felt about it.
Because I am a curious sort of fellow, I called up DeLisi to ask him how he became the Chosen One for the anti-wetlands forces. He wouldn’t tell me.
“I’m not authorized to speak,” he said repeatedly.
I tried reaching Beruff, too, but he didn’t respond. Perhaps he was too busy selecting which cypress swamps he’d pave over first.
DeLisi initially brought his anti-wetlands report to the county’s planning commission, which listened to him and then to a packed house of people opposed to what he said. The planning commission then voted 4-2 to recommend the commissioners reject DeLisi’s report.
To paraphrase Sir Mix-A-Lot, they liked big buffers and they could not lie.
At the county commission meeting, the scene played out far differently.
A slacker playing Call of Duty
As expected, DeLisi told the full commission that it could dispense with the 50-foot buffer around wetlands, contending the presence or absence of buffers “do not cause impacts to wetlands.” (The crowd of opponents laughed scornfully until the commission chairman banged his gavel.)
In fact, DeLisi said, the county could ditch all of its wetlands regulations. Instead, he said, Manatee should just leave everything up to the state, which has its own one-size-fits-all wetlands protection rules.
Brown, the former county environmental official, pointed out to me that the state’s buffers between development and wetlands are a mere 15 feet, far less than the county requires.
Also on DeLisi’s recommended chopping block: County requirements that the people who want to destroy wetlands must demonstrate “an overriding public benefit” for doing so.
By tossing out that requirement, Brown said, the county cleared the way for anyone — developer, phosphate miner, you name it — to do whatever they want with a public resource. Mosaic, the phosphate mining giant at work in the eastern part of the county, would definitely benefit from that.
Somehow none of that was in DeLisi’s report.
“Unfortunately, what we had was a consultant who didn’t know anything speaking to a board who didn’t listen to anything,” Kruse wrote on his Substack afterward.
Among the outspoken critics of DeLisi’s dubious recommendations was an environmental group called Suncoast Waterkeeper, which in the spring produced a report that said of all nine counties in Southwest Florida, the one with the worst water quality was Manatee. The county’s waterways are suffering from a toxic alae bloom that’s causing a fish kill between Anna Maria Island and the city of Bradenton and is still coping with the pollution dumped by the Piney Point disaster.
Unlike DeLisi, the leader of Suncoast Waterkeeper is, in fact, a wetlands expert. Abbey Tyrna has a doctorate in geography from Pennsylvania State University, where her research focused on measuring the effects of development on wetlands.
She tried to tell the commissioners about the science behind the use of wetland buffers and the importance of wetlands in cleaning up stormwater runoff. They tuned her out like a teenager too busy playing Call of Duty to listen to Dad telling him how to apply for college.
DeLisi’s unscientific recommendations, and the fact that the commissioners listened to him instead of everyone else, is “pretty crazy,” she told me.
More remarkable to Kruse was the fact that the jampacked audience contained more than a few local builders, engineers, contractors, and land-use attorneys, all of whom chose to keep their traps shut. They didn’t chime in to support DeLisi. He was the lone advocate for looser rules, Kruse said.
In the end, the motion to do what DeLisi recommended came from Commissioner Jason Bearden, one of the few commissioners who’s not employed by the development industry. He works for a non-profit religious organization.
However, I took a spin through his campaign contribution reports and found that nearly every donor had some connection with real estate, homebuilding, or development. I guess that’s why this self-proclaimed man of God made sure the county’s wetlands don’t have a prayer.
The second came from Van Ostenbridge, who hailed this as a blow struck against “overregulation.”
Kruse — who’s also a Republican in the real estate business, but who understands the importance of wetlands — tried to stop the inevitable by pointing out the consequences.
“Cutting this now is only going to cost millions of dollars to fix our mistake later when those districts start flooding the old way our old districts started flooding,” he told his fellow commissioners.
They paid him no mind.
Wetlands in Florida have been having a rough time in the past few years.
In December 2020, on his way out the door, soon-to-be-former Environmental Protection Agency secretary Andrew Wheeler handed over to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection the authority to issue federal wetlands permits
Within two years, the EPA was objecting to the way Florida was handing out those permits. Those federal wetlands permit slips were apparently as difficult to obtain as an Icee from the self-serve dispenser at the nearest Circle K store.
Bear in mind that this is the state agency to which Manatee County just voted to defer its wetlands decisions.
While Florida has worked hard to make it easier than ever to wipe out wetlands, we’ve also seen an increase in water pollution. A recent study found Florida has more polluted lakes than any other state, and we’re second for the most polluted estuaries.
We’ve had pollution-fueled algae blooms exploding all over, too, killing marine life and sending noxious fumes all over coastal areas. No matter how icky those wetlands may seem to you, they keep us safe from some far ickier stuff that’s bad for both our health and our economy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court recently came up with a boneheaded and unscientific ruling that sharply limits which wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act. The opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito, whose wife has leased land to an oil and gas company, which I am sure had NOTHING to do with his decision on this issue.
The Manatee County Commission’s anti-wetlands vote wasn’t the end of the debate. The county’s comp plan change will be sent to the state’s Department of Commerce for approval. Kruse says the state’s never denied anything from Manatee, no matter how bad it was.
Then, in October, the anti-wetlands rules will come back for a final commission vote, just in time for Halloween, the season for scary scenarios.
I am hopeful that before October rolls around, Manatee’s civic-minded voters can convince those six commissioners to change their minds and let the current wetlands rules stand.
Otherwise, I think someone should award them the prize for running the ickiest swamp in the state.