Having spent his life amid the greenery and wildlife of East County, Chris Mcguinness sees a piece of his world disappearing with each new apartment complex or house that emerges.
“It's just sad because there's nowhere to go after this,” he said.
Mcguinness said lakes where he used to fish as a child are now considered off-limits and that "wildlife preserve" signs he used to see down the road from his Dam Road home have vanished.
“If you say this is a wildlife preserve area, and then you build a thousand homes, that’s kind of contradictory,” he said.
The southern half of Dam Road runs alongside Lake Manatee State Park, which is separated from the road by a barbed wire fence.
And although Mcguinness hoped Manatee County commissioners would protect that area, he wasn't surprised March 3 that they voted 6-1 to approve a new rezone request for approximately 310 acres from General Agriculture to Planned Development Residential. That clears the way for a Neal Communities development of 706 residential units and 17,750 square feet of medical facilities.
The property is north of State Road 64, west of Dam Road and east of Uihlein Road. The rezone will allow for two homes per acre. The project also includes a specific approval to reduce the required front yard setback from 25 to 23 feet for single family detached units with front loaded garages.
“It will be a gorgeous Lakewood Ranch community starting in about the $300,000 level,” company Founder Pat Neal said. “It won't exactly meet affordable housing, but the homes will be attainable.”
On Feb. 27, before the approval of the rezone, approximately 15 residents, including Mcguinness, gathered along the intersection between Dam Road and State Road 64 with signs asking people to oppose the approval of the rezone.
“A lot of us live on isolated plots of land and don’t see each other very often,” said Myakka City's Carol Felts, an at-large candidate for the Manatee County Commission who helped organize the event along with Elizabeth Arnold. “If there are 15 of us out there protesting, that means something.”
Alicia Fretz, president of the group POWER (Protect Our Wildlife, Environment, and Resources), said she believed the rezoning would pass but that she hoped her group could still make a difference through its presence.
“I am a glass half-full person,” she said, explaining that the new developments should be built in a way that complements those who live in the area by including a greater amount of land buffers.
Many of those at the protest gathering said they didn't move to rural East County thinking it would become a higher density area in terms of homes.
“I've been here since I was 2, and we moved out east for a way of life," POWER Treasurer Kimberly Seery said. "That's what it is. It's a way of life in how our children are raised and our grandchildren and our animals.”
Some residents objected to placing a development within such close proximity to a state park. Mcguinness said that from Dam Road, it is possible to see RVs at the campground. He said adding a housing development will damage the value of the campground and the trail around the park as an escape from city life.
Other criticisms focus on environmental issues as being in a watershed.
Attorney Ed Vogler, representing Neal Communities, said at the land use meeting that only a small corner of the northeastern portion of the site — approximately 15% — was part of the watershed and that this area would be well buffered.
“It is a similar watershed overlay to the Braden River Watershed overlay, which is the drinking water source for the city of Bradenton. There are thousands of homes built there,” Vogler said. “This is an engineering question. You can ask our engineers about it, but there's extra protection for discharges and treatment.”
Sand Branch Creek, which cuts across the property, will be used as a drainage ditch to carry runoff into the Manatee River, to avoid polluting the area's drinking water.
Mark Vanderee, speaking on behalf of the Waterline Road Preservation Group, said of Sand Branch Creek: “It's a whole lot more than just a drainage ditch. It's a real creek. It's wet year-round and supports a lot of wildlife.”
Residents also expressed concerns about flooding, saying that during rainstorms, the road collects a large amount of water.
Joel Christian, a senior environmental scientist with Ardurra, said he did not see any major conservation-related concerns with the proposed development but recommended a full survey of the area before construction. He said the land had been utilized in the past, noting depressions in the ground that suggested cattle grazing. Despite reports of an eagle’s nest from residents, he added, one had not been documented on the property.
“The environmental report for this application did not acknowledge the gopher tortoises on this property," Vanderee said. "I know they're there. I've seen them go back and forth cross Dam Road from the state park.”
The presence of gopher tortoises is well documented at the state park across the road.
Although the commission voted decisively in favor of the development, with Commissioner George Kruse offering the only dissenting vote, Commissioner Misty Servia said the issues was multifaceted.
“I appreciate the complex nature of this project, which both sides did an excellent job in presenting to us,” Servia said. “We heard from the community that this is not an adequate transition, but I disagree. It is an excellent transition, the way it’s designed, from the busy arterial roadway, to the north.”
“The site plan basically bumps immediately up to a park and up to our drinking water," Kruse said. "It’s built to maximize profit and not maximize utilization of the land.”