EAST COUNTY — Tim Almeter says he’s not a tree-hugger.
A lifetime farmer, rancher and construction worker, Almeter just wants to keep the character of the road on which he hand-built his family’s dream home, the road his children canoe down when it rains, without the threat of traffic.
Almeter’s not alone.
A door-to-door movement by a group of homeowners trying to preserve their land in East County has caught the attention of the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners.
Commissioners voted May 2 to delay a decision on a project that would build 195 residential units on 77 acres of wooded property on the north side of Waterline Road.
The decision to continue a public hearing on the East Manatee housing proposal, called the Martin-Hillwood project, came after more than 20 Waterline Road homeowners, organized into a group called Preserve Our Waterline Road Inc. (POWeR), voiced their displeasure with the plan at the commission meeting.
POWeR, headed by Waterline Road residents Almeter, Jack Richardson and Jeanette Abel, sent a petition with 350 signatures to the commission the night before the May 2 commission meeting.
The petition, signed by some residents from neighboring communities, such as Mill Creek, Country Creek and Rye Wilderness, cited concerns about increased traffic along the rural Waterline Road, harm to wildlife life, such as gopher tortoises and scrub jay, and the incompatibility of the proposed “low-impact” clustered development with the area.
“We’re not environmentalists,” Almeter said. “Most of us are actually conservative farmers. We’re just common-sense thinkers.”
County staff says the plan would preserve 15 acres of the project for native habitat and that the smaller lot size of the proposed homes would cover less land.
The land has been in Mary Jane Martin Smith’s family since 1957.
Smith and her husband, Richard I. Martin, control the land now.
In 2008, the landowners proposed the land be turned into 119 residential lots.
Commissioners reviewed that proposal in 2008 and agreed to continue a public hearing on it.
A revised plan from the applicant, with 195 units, was not considered until now.
Caleb Grimes, an attorney representing the property owners, said development on the land has been planned since 1989, when it was designated “urban fringe.”
After some residents complained that increased traffic from development would further deteriorate the already ragged and rough Waterline Road, Grimes spoke of standard benefits of development — the impact fees and taxes that would come to help pay for repairs to the road.
Joel Christian, Manatee County environment manager, addressed concerns that building would threaten endangered species that live off the road.
A 2005 study, the last the county took, found two eagle nests off-site but within the vicinity of the 77-acre lot and found “some” gopher tortoises on the property.
“People fear what they haven’t seen yet,” Grimes said. “I find with these projects that all these different people end up becoming friends, living together and enjoying the area.”
The Martin-Hillwood project discussion comes after commissioners in April unanimously approved additions to a community already slated for construction on nearby Rye Road — changes that add 50 homes to a project by Medallion Home and add a second entrance off Waterline Road.
The Rye Road Subdivision project, located on 35 acres between Rye and Waterline roads, will have 150 single-family lots.
All of it worries the Almeters, especially the children, Natalie, 18, and Grayson, 13.
Natalie started a Facebook group, Preserve Our Waterline Road Inc. The page is decorated with fliers and pictures of the road and the creatures that call it home.
On the page, which had 111 “likes” as of May 7, there’s a picture of Grayson’s almost 15-year-old potbelly pig. The pig lives by Grayson’s chicken coop, which holds his 40 chickens and the eggs he sells to neighbors.
“Building these packed homes on this land with these animals here just doesn’t make sense,” Grayson said.
The public hearing will continue at the commission’s next land-use meeting June 6.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].