EAST COUNTY — The Manatee County Board of County Commissioners denied a development plan because of the peculiarity of a road.
The very nature of Waterline Road does not fall into a straight line.
It’s there among palmettos and shrubs and wooded 5- and 10-acre lots.
It’s rocky and ragged, making it a challenging enough platform for neighboring residents to maneuver down when it rains and floods.
But, since 1989, the county’s comprehensive plan has said the road lies in an area that’s designated to be developed.
It’s a collector road, designed to collect stormwater and channel it.
It’s a road with no sidewalks in a rural community that wants to keep it that way.
Commissioners sided with the residents — a vocal group who petitioned and organized themselves into a group called Preserve Our Waterline Road Inc. — voting to reject the development, a proposed 175-home community on 77.9 acres known as the Martin-Hillwood project.
“Our prayers have been answered,” said Tim Almeter, a Waterline Road resident and lifetime rancher and farmer. “We prayed hard to keep our agricultural way of life. I’m in sticker shock that this happened. Everything we said came from the heart. And commissioners showed they have a heart, too.”
By a 5-2 vote in a contentious, all-day meeting, the board turned back the plan even though some commissioners acknowledged nothing in the county’s rules allowed them to do so.
“This is Manatee County,” said Betsy Benac, who dissented in the vote. “This is not an unusual rural development pattern. I cannot see any reason to deny this.”
Their decision leaves with it a host of questions about the future of development in Manatee County.
The land, on the north side of Waterline Road, 1.8 miles east of Rye Road, has been in Mary Jane Martin Smith’s family since 1957. She has left it untouched and waited until now to “do something special with it.”
“We’re very disappointed in their vote,” said Caleb Grimes, an attorney representing Smith and her husband, Richard I. Martin. “I believe the decision is inappropriate. We worked hard to be in complete compliance with the comprehensive plan and land development code. There is no valid reason for this to have been turned down.”
The decision came as Grimes made concessions to commissioners aimed to do something different with the development — required by the uniqueness of the property (the property is situated on a hill where the soil is sandy).
At the end of the meeting, Grimes dropped the number of homes from 195 to 175, after commissioners worried about the development’s density.
He promised a 50-foot buffer around the entire community, separating it from the farms and wildlife nearby.
He agreed to preserve a minimum of 15 acres for upland habitat.
He also offered the option to build in the style of low-impact development, a fresh approach that clusters homes close together, more efficiently manages stormwater and preserves open space.
Commissioners could not promise low-impact design, however, because the county does not yet have standard for it.
“We believed in this county and its future,” Smith said. “You adopted a plan for smart growth and to avoid urban sprawl, and we’re just trying to play by those rules.”
County staff said it is working toward holding workshops to make a standard for low-impact design.
One commissioner, District 5’s Vanessa Baugh, held off on approving the development while she waits for such a standard.
“We need to work on regulations for low-impact design,” Baugh said. “This land has great potential. It would be a shame to not hold off and get the right development.”
Even without such a standard, some worried what declining the development would signal to other developers who come before the county.
“This met everything,” said Larry Bustle, the commission chairman who voted in dissent. “What message are we telling landowners who come before us? What do they have to do?”
Those who voted against the development said Grimes and his team did enough.
But they worried Waterline Road would never be enough. They worried if it could serve increased traffic. And they worried about flooding.
County staff said they shouldn’t have.
“Waterline Road is not unique to Manatee County in any imagination,” said Tom Gerstenberger of the public works department.
Grimes and Smith can come back to commissioners in a year with a new plan.
Grimes said Smith had not yet decided to do so.
Maybe there will be a low-impact design standard by then.
Waterline Road will be repaved in three to five years.
But little else about the road, and the people who swear by it will likely change.
“We will have to address this road sooner rather than later,” Baugh said.
Said Almeter, a Waterline Road resident, with a smile: “I’m temporarily happy. But I don’t know about the future.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].