By Jennifer Glenfield
Special to The Islander
In 1989, it seemed a done deal. The Cortez Bridge would be replaced with a high, fixed-span bridge.
Commuters today might note the seemingly done deal proposed by the Florida Department of Transportation never came to fruition.
The DOT proposal announced April 23 is the latest development in a decades-old debate over the 17.5-foot clearance bascule bridge constructed in 1957. The cyclical nature of the bridge debate can’t be ignored: It’s the same proposal, the same communities impacted and community action groups still stand as guardians on both sides of the bridge landings.
Although this time around, some of the guardians are battle fatigued. Many showing up at the 2017 DOT public hearings were the same community members, only 30 years older. And some who led the charge against the first proposal are no longer around to fight the battle.
“I’ve lost two good friends that fought tooth and nail,” said Katie Pierola, a former Bradenton Beach mayor who now resides in Tampa. “People really cared back then. People don’t care anymore. How long can you keep fighting these battles? I’m tired. I’m old.”
Pierola, 85, was mayor in 1989 and advocated for the island leaders to have a voice in transportation planning.
The Island Transportation Planning Organization was born to give input to the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Alongside the official meetings, Save Anna Maria Inc., a nonprofit of mostly island residents, formed and led a victorious legal dispute, which resulted in denial over environmental concerns by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection of the permit needed to build the Anna Maria Island Bridge.
Former islander Melody Kramer formed SAM, alongside Billie Martini and Jim Kissick, who have since died. Others who fought also have died, including Bob Van Wagoner, mayor of Holmes Beach 1996-98, and Ann Shaw. Others have disappeared from the landscape, including Bunny and Claflin Garst. The few remaining people with SAM, most prominently Nancy Deal and Ursula Stemm, stepped down.
The nonprofit incorporated Sept. 30, 1993, and disbanded in October 2017.
While SAM aimed to temper ambitious infrastructure projects dubbed “megabridges,” residents in Cortez were organizing to save their community from more than the DOT’s plans. Reeling from an economic depression spawned by the 1994 gill net ban that put nearly all the Cortez fishers out of business, Mary Fulford Green and Linda Molto worked to put Cortez on the National Register of Historic Places. They won that designation in 1995 and it helped stave off the Cortez Bridge proposal.
But residents of these communities voiced opposition to infrastructure plans well before the bridge debates.
The widening of Cortez Road in the early 1980s preceded the 1989 high-bridge proposal and the 1994 net ban. Baby boomers who grew up in Cortez remember dirt roads before a paved two-lane road. When the DOT began widening Cortez Road, many voiced opposition to the four lanes that carry travelers to the island today.
Many who fought the past bridge battles the hardest are weary.
“It feels like we’ve been beating our heads against the wall,” said Jane von Hahmann, Cortez resident. “It’s almost like they do it on purpose to beat you down.”
For people like Pierola and von Hahmann, a former county commissioner, it’s not about resisting change, as the region and the state as a whole experience continuous growing pains. It’s about maintaining the character of their communities. On the east end, in Cortez, the project would literally divide the community in half, north from south.
Pierola thinks the bridge will destroy the village.
“Let them go ahead and build the big bridge and see what happens,” said Pierola.
In this series, The Islander will examine the history of the battles over the bridges, the economic forces that have impacted the communities on both sides and why bridge size matters.