Cortez, FISH members vow to fight high bridge

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Traffic stops on the Cortez Bridge April 7. Bridge delays for boat traffic would not occur on a fixed-span bridge. Islander Photo: Terry O’Connor

This FISH fight isn’t over.

Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage board members discussed during a May 7 meeting ways to resist the Florida Department of Transportation and its plans for a high fixed-span bridge in Cortez.

As part of their charter, FISH members lobby against land developments seen as detrimental to the commercial fishing way of life. FISH consistently opposed a 65-foot-clearance fixed-span option at previous DOT public meetings.

The DOT decision announced at the April 23 Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting made stronger opposition imperative, members said.

“A high-rise bridge would be horrific for Cortez,” said board member John Stevely. “I think there has to be a compromise.”

“We will try to stop it,” said Plum Taylor, FISH Board member. “We always have.”

Board member Linda Molto was tasked with coordinating with Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, who also is opposed to a large bridge, to discuss mutual options.

“I want to get together with Bradenton Beach because they are not happy about it at all. They’re not happy. We’re not happy,” Molto said. “I always believe there is something we can do.”

Support for the fight is gaining momentum.

The Holmes Beach City Commission unanimously voted at its May 8 meeting to issue a letter of opposition to the DOT’s bridge proposal.

FISH members say the National Register of Historic Places designation secured for the Cortez Historic District in 1995 may afford some protection.

The district is bounded by Cortez Road, 119th Street West, Sarasota Bay and 124th Street Court West.

“I would think it would be a very, very strong point,” Stevely said. “I would think it’s a way to go at this.”

The national register is the federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects worthy of preservation by virtue of historical significance.

A listing does not automatically invoke local historic district zoning or local landmark designations, according to Sarah Revell, director of communications for the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

“Listing in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places does not offer specific protections,” Revell wrote in a May 8 email to The Islander.

It could provide protection coupled with the Cortez vision plan, Molto said. Cortez, Bradenton Beach and the other island cities, Anna Maria and Holmes Beach, are low-rise communities, and the proposed DOT span just doesn’t fit the profile, Molto said.

“Cortez has a vision plan, and you can only build to a certain height,” Molto said. “How can the government come in and say, ‘We can build higher.’”
Ironically, the state government funded the Cortez vision plan process, Molto said.

“If the government funds this project to have us decide what we want Cortez to be, how can the government come in and destroy that?” she asked.

FISH leadership could file a lawsuit to oppose the DOT decision to build a new, $72-million megabridge rather than repair the present structure.

“Not sure on what legal grounds we would oppose the bridge,” said FISH vice president Jane von Hahmann.

Von Hahmann said FISH would need support from Manatee County officials, which is unlikely. District 3 Commissioner Steve Jonsson, who represents Anna Maria Island and west Bradenton, and at-large Commissioner Betsy Benac already have expressed strong support for the DOT’s choice of a high bridge.

The drawbridge — officially opened in 1957 — links Bradenton Beach with the mainland at Cortez. DOT inspections between 2008 and 2012 found it repairable but ranked it functionally obsolete.

Eventually, the cost of repairing the older structure will outstrip the price of a new span by millions of dollars, according to a DOT report.

Design is scheduled to begin this year, while the right-of-way acquisition phase is funded in 2020.

The bridge still requires final approval from the DOT Office of Environmental Management in Tallahassee.

Construction is not funded, so it could be seven to 10 years before a new Cortez Bridge rises, according to L.K. Nandam, DOT District 1 secretary.

There is time to change the DOT’s direction.

“Back in 1995, they didn’t think we had a chance,” said FISH board member Kaye Bell, recounting the last time Cortezians convinced the DOT to keep the low bridge. “Every Saturday, the whole village practically got out there holding signs. We have to all get together and support each other.

We have to write letters and make noise.”

Miller said she believes the communities can band together to win an uphill fight. “It appears that decisions are made, despite what the community residents voice, and that’s the distressing part,” Miller said. “This bridge just makes no sense no matter how you look at it.”

Founded in 1991, FISH supports a 95-acre preserve and community programs. It will next meet at 7 p.m. Monday, June 4, at Fishermen’s Hall, 4511 124th St. W.

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