Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Andre Mele: The Army Corps of Engineers can save us from Benderson . . .

County Commissioners Give Benderson 37% Increase in UTC Development

Yesterday, the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve Benderson Development’s request for a 37% increase in the amount of development permitted at the University Town Center campus at the intersection of I-75 and University Parkway.

In doing so, the County may have set itself on a collision course with the federal government.

Benderson UTC Mall, Sarasota/Manatee Lakewood Ranch
 I was there to remind the Commissioners and other parties of a long-suppressed piece of information: the Army Corps of Engineers permit that was the first and overarching set of conditions by which all future development, mitigation and conservation would be guided.  The conditions set forth by the Corps were unequivocal, and have been supported by emails from Corps staff.  The conditions of the permit are permanent and binding, and stipulate that the 51-acre parcel south of DeSoto Road, as well as the northward-extending Cooper Creek wildlife corridor, are to be preserved in perpetuity as mitigation for the development’s filling of wetlands, and subsequent construction. 

The preservation in perpetuity totaling some 74 acres of this high-quality upland habitat was, in itself, the mitigation.  The permit conditions included some built wetlands, some enhanced wetlands, and some removal of invasive species, but the centerpiece of the permit was to be a conservation easement and subsequent preservation, protecting this land, and a number of endangered species that have been observed there, forever.  Period.  Unlike the SWFWMD conservation easement, which isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, and has merely allowed Benderson Development to hold the property for future development while paying no taxes.

Plainly alarmed, the Commissioners stared at me, as I was presenting, like deer caught in the headlights. The fix was in, the vote ordained, but how could they vote as instructed if I was right?  After all, Randy Benderson himself was in the front rows, along with a horde of lawyers and consultants, probably costing him upwards of $4,000 an hour.  Another developer, Rod Krebs, who attends every meeting, was present.  As was Bob Waechter, the Republican machine’s enforcer, who, with Eric Robinson, is well-known (and a convicted felon) for dispensing dark PAC money – or withholding it – illegally removing opposing campaign signs, and illegally mass-mailing concocted character assassinations.  Glowering in the back row, he literally cast a pall over the room.    

After the public input session, the Commission adjourned to give County staff and the horde of suits time to huddle over the Corps permit, to find something that would get the Commissioners off the hook, and allow them to vote as they were intending to vote.  At last they broke up, and Matt Osterhoudt, manager of Development Services and the County’s Environmental Protection department, looked triumphant.  Back in session, Osterhoudt proclaimed, under oath, that the Corps permit had expired.  Mistaking, intentionally or not, the compliance deadline for permit expiration – of which there is none – Osterhoudt threw himself under the bus for his masters, and gave them the erroneous sense of security that there was nothing to worry about in the Corps permit.  The preordained vote went forward.

The only positive note in this exchange came as Osterhoudt reminded Benderson Development that they would be required to renegotiate a permit for all the intended takings of preservation lands, wetlands, and mitigation uplands for development. 

It won’t be easy. The federal government is largely beyond the reach of local corruption and undue influence.  While it is said that the Corps never denies a developer a permit, it still takes what it negotiates in its permits very seriously, and is reluctant to give away further concessions to developers.  If 74 acres of wetlands are to be mitigated, 74 acres will still be mitigated, just differently.

It may be years before Benderson Development has all the necessary permits to proceed with the construction that the County gave its permission for yesterday. 

Sometimes, the victories come out of the interstices, the places between the facts.

And there still remains the matter of the Corps having assigned responsibility for the permit’s preservation requirements to the County, and what, if any, impact yesterday’s vote will have on that. Has the County Commission acted in violation of a federal permit?  Stay tuned.

I will be drafting a letter to the Corps, relating the above facts, and suggesting that their enforcement division take an interest in how Sarasota County operates.  I will also be drafting an email to the Commissioners and their staff attorney, correcting the misleading information given to them by Osterhoudt, and attaching a copy of my letter to the Corps. 

At that point, until a new permit application affords the opportunity for public input, my bag of tricks is empty, unless someone comes forward who would like to sue the County. 

Best regards, and thanks for your support,

1 comment:

  1. That is great. What they take for granted is no one will sue, and they can work things out with corrupt politicians who they can pay to influence ACOE.