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Will Manatee County commissioners' wetlands decision impact 2024 election?

One commissioner suggests that it is mostly Democrats who oppose decision to decrease wetland buffers.

Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge
Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge
Photo by Brendan Lavell
  • East County
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Famed San Francisco Bay Area sports columnist and author Lowell Cohn once wrote an article about a boxing match he had just witnessed and the resulting decision by the judges.

He watched the bout with his young son, who heard the decision and then asked his dad why the guy bleeding all over the ring, with his eyes battered until they closed, had won while the other fighter had no marks on him.

Cohn theorized that, sometimes, right and wrong can best be judged by children.

With that thought in mind, 15-year-old Brice Claypoole, a Longboat Key resident, showed up at the Oct. 5 land use meeting of the Manatee County Commission. Claypoole was trying his best to convince Manatee County commissioners that reducing buffers for wetlands was not a good idea at a time when water pollution has led to grave circumstances in the Gulf of Mexico.

The commissioners voted 6-1 on Aug. 17 to send the move to the state for approval, and certainly hadn't been listening to any adults.

At the Oct. 5 meeting, and at a previous land use meeting on Aug. 17, a litany of information from environmentalist groups reported that the buffers between any construction and wetlands are, indeed, important. It is the kind of information that inspires children to become activists who want to protect their future during this period of tremendous growth.

To say District 3 Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge was impressed with Claypoole's activism would be folly. He noted that any sympathizers to the environmentalists' agenda were being political pawns straight out of the "George Soros (a billionaire who was the country’s largest Democratic contributor during the 2022 elections) playbook.” 

This statement was meant to be derogatory since Van Ostenbridge is a Republican's Republican, whose purpose in all this shifting of Comprehensive Plan language has been done to protect property rights. It seems that most of our county commissioners believe residents all over Manatee County have not been able to build swimming pools in their backyards because of insufficient square footage due to the county's seizing of their property along wetlands.

Of course — wink, wink — it is irrelevant that builders can put more homes on a small parcel of land if they don't have to worry about wetland buffers.

Commissioners voted 5-1(District 5 Commissioner Ray Turner was absent) to reduce the wetland protections.

Van Ostenbridge has implied that no Republican in his or her right mind would pick the environment over property rights. Well, except for George Kruse, who occupies a seat on the dais and actually wants some thought and dialogue before committing to a red train of progress.

It was apparent early in Kruse's term that he was going to be the thoughtful commissioner, the one who wouldn't knee-jerk to fall into the party-perfect line. That seemingly all went for naught when Kruse publicly announced an affair and later rammed his pickup into a tree near his Greyhawk Landing home in April 2022. State prosecutors eventually dropped a DUI case against Kruse in June 2023, but the damage had been done. His chance at reelection seemed to be toast.

At-large Commissioner George Kruse
Photo by Ian Swaby

Lo and behold, Kruse's political future might have taken an about-face since he has become the black sheep of the Commission. His personal frailties will be attacked ad nauseam in the 2024 election cycle, but his actual governing has gained an entirely new respect. Perhaps more than anything, Kruse has grown unafraid of taking an unpopular stance. So far, the other commissioners aren't listening, but perhaps those who vote are.

Whether he can win an election without universal support among developers and builders, who supply much of the candidates' election funds, remains to be seen. Likewise, we won't know if Van Ostenbridge's role of ring leader in dumping wetlands protections will result in political suicide until the 2024 election cycle plays out. It already is obvious his campaign donations from developers will swell his coffers, but will there be a backlash from voters over the wetlands decision?

Several of those who attended the Oct. 5 charade said they would work to oust those commissioners who voted against wetland buffers. Van Ostenbridge seems unconcerned because those in that meeting were all crazy Democrats.

It is an interesting evaluation considering the 2022 referendum in which 71.27% of county voters chose to tax themselves so Manatee County could "finance the acquisition, improvement, and management of land to protect drinking water sources and water quality, preserve fish and wildlife habitat, prevent stormwater runoff pollution, and provide parks."

So let's evaluate that 71.27%. As of this week, Manatee County has 121,833 registered Republicans and 69,970 registered Democrats. When you think of that 71.27% who voted to take major strides to protect the environment, wouldn't you surmise that many of them had to be Republicans?

Republicans in Manatee County are on record as believing smart growth can be obtained while still protecting the environment. Will that be a factor when voting begins in 2024?

Whether the sleeping bear residents of Manatee County continue to accept the status quo will be tested in 2024. They not only have been poked, but they have slapped several times as well.

If they don't wake up, they could find themselves, in the immediate future, on the short end of the boxing decision, with no child in sight to help with the common sense decision. They will be wondering what had happened to their environment, and left to mutter a phrase made famous by boxing manager Joe Jacobs after his fighter, Max Schmeling, lost a decision to heavyweight Jack Sharkey in 1932.

"We wuz robbed."



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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