“I’m in District 2, and Amanda Ballard was just elected, so she doesn’t come up until 2026, but in spite of what district I live in, I’m going to work for a candidate to defeat Kevin Van Ostenbridge,” Peggy Haynes said. “Also, I’m going to pay more attention to what these guys are up to.”
Haynes said that while past commissioners have also been conservative, they were moderate conservatives who were more thoughtful about the needs of the community.
“Now, all we have is one good voice, which is George Kruse, and at least some thoughtfulness out of Amanda Ballard and Mike Rahn,” she said. “But the others don’t speak to the subject. They try to push people’s buttons, and they succeed. They tell us to be respectful, and they’re not at all respectful.”
Kruse was the one dissenting vote arguing to keep the county's buffer protections from being reduced to state recommended levels, and Ballard provided the most detailed explanation as to why she voted to take the protective language out of the Comprehensive Plan.
“The Comprehensive Plan is for overarching goals and objectives. It is not the place for nitty gritty policy decisions like buffer widths. It’s extremely inflexible. Other counties don’t do it this way. If it belongs anywhere, it belongs in the LDC (land development code),” Ballard said. “Some of the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control, so this is giving people more control over the land that they own.”
She also said that she thought some of Suncoast Waterkeeper’s information was presented in a deceptive way and was not on point with the discussion.
Suncoast Waterkeeper is a nonprofit with a mission to protect everyone’s right to clean water. The organization started a petition to stop the cuts, which garnered 2,331 signatures from Manatee County residents.
Ballard is not up for reelection next year. Neither is Rahn or Bearden. But Commissioners Ray Turner, James Satcher, Van Ostenbridge and Kruse are. Turner was appointed after Vanessa Baugh retired early.
“I’m a Republican, but that’s a different kind of Republican,” Myakka City resident Dart Cline said of the commissioners. “Why would the Manatee County Commission, unless they’re directly involved in development, be voting for it unless they’re being coerced into it? That’s what’s happening, and that happens with every political party.”
Cline didn’t attend the meeting, but he read about it in the news and has lived in Manatee County for 50 years. He said he wouldn’t vote for someone who wants to build on wetlands, and he questioned whose property rights the commissioners are protecting.
Van Ostenbridge had staff search county parcels prior to the meeting. According to their research, over 66,000 parcels are impacted by wetland buffer requirements in Manatee County. He equated the additional protections to government taking.
But then he dismissed Suncoast Waterkeeper and anyone who supported its position. He likened 15-year-old Longboat Key resident Brice Claypoole to Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg and said he was being used as a political pawn straight out of the “George Soros (a billionaire who was the country's largest Democratic contributor during the 2022 elections) playbook.”
Claypoole started his own activist group called Kids for Clean Water. He collected over 100 signatures from kids living in Manatee County who wanted to see the wetland protections remain in place. As homeschooled students, he and his 13-year-old sister Coco were able to attend the meeting with their mom Ali Claypoole.
“Everybody knew that this was passing, and if their sole goal in life was just to pass this to gut our wetland buffers and harm our environment so Carlos (Beruff) and a few people can build a few more houses, they had the votes,” Kruse said. “Any rational person who wasn’t driven by ego would have just kept their mouth shut.”
That’s the route Rahn took. He asked a few questions of the staff and thanked Suncoast Waterkeeper for meeting with him, while Van Ostenbridge continued to stir up the crowd.
“I did see the best drone footage and slideshow that George Soros money could buy. I did not attend his indoctrination seminar at the League of Women Voters and the discredited Suncoast Waterkeeper’s group,” he said sarcastically, as no such meeting took place.
Suncoast Waterkeeper held a panel discussion titled "The Value of Wetlands Science" on Sept. 26. Kruse was the only commissioner to attend.
The drone footage was shot by Longboat Key resident, longtime fisherman and former building contractor, Rusty Chinnis. Chinnis told commissioners that he wasn’t a scientist, but he has eyes to see the decline of Manatee County waters over the past five years.
Van Ostenbridge's statements aligned with the views of an anonymous group called the Real Manatee County Conservatives, which has 94 followers on Facebook. A recent headline on their website reads, “Stop Soroscoast Waterkeepers before it’s too late.”
“If you want George Soros and his allies setting policy here in Manatee County, then listen to his climate crisis alarmists, the Suncoast Waterkeepers,” the website reads. “They only live up to their name by carrying water for a group that hates you and everything you stand for. Real Conservatives of Manatee County exists to call out the blatant hypocrisy of so many liberals hiding among our ranks.”
Suncoast Waterkeeper denies Soros has anything to do with the group.
Two people showed up to the meeting to favor reducing wetland buffers. One was Jon Mast, CEO of the Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association, and the other was Ryan Lieberman, vice president of development for the Barrington Group in Sarasota.
“Vote for property rights. Vote for what you know to be a nonemotional issue. I applaud those that want to be heard on this issue. It’s their civic right,” Mast said. “However, do not get caught up in the hysterics of a vocal few. There are roughly 422,774 citizens in Manatee County, as I Googled today, and only a handful that are here to speak out against this. Don’t allow them to be driven by emotion to change your mind.”
Sneed Island resident Starr Parsons disagreed. Parsons had never attended a commission meeting before and chose not to speak at the podium, but she said the move went against the voting majority.
"I was one of the 71% who voted for the conservation tax, and yet a group of elected officials want to change the definition of conservation," she said.
While Kruse confirmed he will be running for reelection, he hasn’t filed his paperwork yet. Satcher, Turner and Van Ostenbridge have, but only Van Ostenbridge has submitted financial reports.
In June, his campaign had raised $170,000. Well over half the donations came from builders, realtors, property managers and investment firms, many of which are located in Lakewood Ranch.
“When this board considers development proposals, they look only to the property rights of developers. You say this makes you a conservative because you are protecting property rights, as well as capitalism,” Manatee County resident Kenneth Piper said. “The problem with protecting the fee simple rights of developers is that it ignores the property rights of the rest of us.”
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.