Charlotte County commissioners voted 4-0 with one abstention Tuesday to take the next steps in a plan to reconnect the Manchester Waterway with a marine wildlife preserve off the Myakka River.

Those steps would be hiring a consulting engineer to start the five-year process of gaining state and federal approval for a project which regulators have already expressed some skepticism about.

Fans of this longstanding goal packed the audience Tuesday and lined up to speak in favor of the project. A smaller group of opponents, who also live along the waterway, called the project an environmental sham.

“This is something I had hoped for during the 33 years I’ve been here,” said resident Gene Benuzzi. “Were we to dredge and clear the three areas ... nature will once again replace anything that has been damaged. ... We can replant mangroves. The taxpayers will ultimately pay for it in increased value of property.”

On the opposing side, resident Linda Perkins accused a group of boating enthusiasts of recasting the project as environmental once they learned that economic benefit will not fly with federal regulators.

“They are hoping to sell the county a bill of goods,” Perkins said. “We feel that allowing this project to continue would be destructive to the ecosystem that now exists along the Manchester. ... Any changes to the mangroves that are protected as a state preserve would be harmful to many species of plants and animals.”

The plan, developed by members of the Manchester Waterway Civic Association, calls for one to three channels to be cut along the 10-mile-long waterway that is the last barrier before undeveloped land borders the open water at the mouth of the Myakka. The main waterway was dredged along with many others in the 1960s and 1970s by General Development Corportation. They changed the landscape dramatically, and today, both sides of the argument disagree on whether the three cuts proposed for the Manchester were there naturally or dredged by GDC. But GDC did fill in channels from the Manchester to the outer bays in the 1970s on orders from federal and state regulators trying to protect the outer bays from pollution from the new urban runoff.

County engineers and officials attempted to come up with a construction price tag and timeline for the project. The construction range was $3.4 million to $9.4 million, depending on whether the project includes all of the three proposed canals to be dredged, or just one or two. The timeline they presented suggests it would be 2027 before the county was able to present the full proposal to state and federal regulators. That process would cost about $390,300, staff estimated, and could be abandoned at any point that things started to look unfeasible.

Proponents, including at least two commissioners, said the project would be an environmental benefit by bringing cleaner water into the Manchester Waterway and by cutting down on the fuel boats use to reach Charlotte Harbor. The trip now takes up to 1.5 hours from the farthest western portion of the waterway.

Some state officials, however, have said earlier that flushing clean water into the Manchester means flushing polluted water into the marine preserve, including Tippecanoe Bay.

Commissioner Chris Constance expressed frustration that cutting fuel use is not seen immediately as an environmental benefit.

“How can one huge mouth of the federal government be spouting how we have to decrease the temperature of the planet, but another saying don’t touch anything that might actually do that,” said Constance.

Opponents of the project, however, said Tuesday that boat traffic will increase as some 700 empty lots start to fill in with boat owners.

Constance called for an analysis of fuel consumption.

Commissioner Joe Tiseo abstained from voting, because he owns property there. He said, however, that the public should be aware of the price tag of the project.

County staff said construction would be paid for by residents of the Manchester Waterway Municipal Benefit Unit, but they don’t know if all of the residents would pay, or just some.

Residents and Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch, a longtime proponent of the project, said opposition makes no sense, given that the channels proposed for dredging were once open.

A major opponent, Coty Keller, told The Daily Sun it is false to say the project would be restoration to a natural state.

“The truth is that before development, there was no deep water, no navigational channels,” he said in an email. Dredging for one 9,000 foot channel would eliminate 10 acres of shallow habitat, he said.

“Visualize the young redfish protected in shallow water nurseries that would become vulnerable to predators,” he said.

The project could also destroy three acres of mangroves, he said. “Destroyed mangroves will not be replaced in Charlotte County. They are lost forever.”

As for whether flushing Manchester water into the bays is a good idea, some state wildlife officials have already weighed in. A state Fish and Wildlife Commission biologist said earlier in the year that the waterway cannot support much wildlife due to lack of sea grass, cement sea walls and urban runoff.

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