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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.

Longboat Key man walks into traffic, dies

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Longboat Key police respond May 8 to a fatal pedestrian accident in the 6800 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

A man on his 85th birthday was on his morning walk.

Warren Roberts, 85, of Longboat Key, died at 6 a.m. May 8 after he entered the path of two northbound vehicles in the 6800 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.

Roberts was walking west from the east side of the Gulf of Mexico Drive near the Whitney Beach Plaza, the report stated.

Longboat Key police responded at 6:02 a.m., closed Gulf of Mexico Drive between the 6700 block and Broadway Street and posted a screen and perimeter around the deceased. The FHP arrived at 9:15 a.m.

“He was out on his morning walk,” Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming said, who added it was his birthday.

“That’s just what he does. His wife told him to take his hearing aid, but he forgot it and got hit.”

A 2016 Hyundai Tuscan that was the first vehicle to strike Roberts was totaled in the accident, according to the FHP.

The Hyundai was driven by Richard Sullo, 71, of Palmetto, who was transported to Blake Medical Center in Bradenton due to chest pains after the collision, the report stated.

FHP reported a second vehicle, a 2008 Mercedes ML 350, also struck Roberts after the first collision.

The motorist, Cheri Zupa, 41, of Longboat Key, and a 15-year-old passenger, were in the Mercedes SUV, according to the report.

No charges were issued.

Eyes on the road

The Florida Department of Transportation and Manatee County posted the following notices for the week of May 14:

• Avenue C: Manatee County crews are replacing force mains. Installation of a 6-inch water main is underway along Avenue C from 24th to 26th streets north. Crews are installing water services across Avenue C. Intermediate road closures will take place. The route from Avenue C southbound onto Gulf Drive is temporarily closed. The roadway is open northbound to local traffic and emergency vehicles from Gulf Drive to 22nd Street North.

• Gulf Drive, between Avenue C and Cortez Road: Continuing through June 29, directional drilling and open-cut installation of a force main is underway. Traffic will be shifted to the west to allow for construction activities. For more information about the project, go online to amipipereplacement.com.

• SR 64/Manatee Avenue on Perico Island from Martinique Drive to 107th Court West: Crews are improving drainage, constructing sidewalk and bicycle lanes and installing new signage and pavement markings. Work occurs off the roadway and does not require lane closures. Florida Safety Contractors Inc. is the contractor. Expected completion is fall 2018.

For the latest road watch information, go online to www.fl511.com or dial 511.

Holmes Beach OKs money for center despite concerns

The city relinquished in spite of misgivings.

A wary Holmes Beach Commission released $22,500 budgeted last year for the Center of Anna Maria Island at its May 8 meeting.

The money had been withheld as the center dealt with financial concerns over the past year, including questions over recently departed executive director Kristen Lessig’s handling of funds.

At the urging of Commissioner Rick Hurst, who advocated for the community center and coaches soccer there, the commission voted 3-1 to release the money despite reservations expressed by the mayor, two commissioners and a member of the public.

“They have done a great job,” Hurst said. “They are in the black right now. I think we have punished them enough for what happened four or five years ago. We’ve got to be done with that.”

Hurst said the center’s financial snarls have been untangled. He cited figures posted on the center’s website as evidence of transparency.

Questions also were raised about Chris Culhane, who was announced May 4 as the new center leader.

Commissioner Pat Morton wondered why Culhane wasn’t at the meeting asking for the money instead of Hurst.

“I don’t know the man,” Morton said. “I’d just like the new gentleman to explain some situations.”

Commissioner Carol Soustek said she questions the center’s posted financial results, citing $100,000 in “unbudgeted capital expenditures,” and asked why center leadership is doing so little fundraising.

Soustek also voiced reservations about the center’s board, reservations she said she’s harbored a long time.

She called for the center to furnish audited financial figures.

“Every time I tried to get figures from the center, they changed all the time,” Soustek said. “I’ve just got a lot of unanswered questions.”

Mayor Bob Johnson said it’s not been a smooth road working out the financial kinks with center officials over the past couple of years, although there has been progress. It’s been months, however, since he received detailed financial reports from the center, the mayor said.

“I don’t think we’re in a position right now, tonight, to say ‘yes,’ because we really don’t have a financial view,” Johnson said.

Hurst responded that the mayor can reference audited financial information online at centerami.org.

“Do you want them to walk up and hand them to you?” Hurst said.

The mayor said center officials should be present to discuss the financial situation.

Resident Nancy Deal raised another concern in citing a story in the May 9 issue of The Islander. She called for caution in dispensing funds to the center and its newly appointed, unproven executive director.

The Islander reported Culhane characterized himself as a sovereign citizen not subject to state laws in settling traffic and divorce court cases.

“Can he please reassure us taxpayers that he is a trustworthy caretaker of taxpayer money?” Deal asked during public comment.

“Until we meet the man, I don’t think any of us are going to be comfortable he’s the appropriate selection,” Titsworth said.

Holmes Beach has supported the center over the past two decades with more than $500,000 — an average contribution of $26,816 per fiscal year.

The top amount was $51,000 in 2006-07, the year before the start of the Great Recession.

“I personally think we’re nitpicking them to death,” Hurst said. “It’s going to fail if we as a community don’t support it.”

Hurst, Titsworth and Morton voted to continue the giving streak. Soustek voted no. The mayor does not have a vote.

“I’m done saying no,” Titsworth said. “I’m done saying prove it.”

The commission will next meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, at city hall, 5801 Marina Drive.

Bradenton Beach ‘pulls trigger’ on historic district plans

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The Bradenton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency plans to enhance the safety and aesthetics of the roundabout and surrounding landscaping at Bridge Street and Gulf Drive. Islander File Photo: 
ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

It’s time to break down the plan and “pull the trigger.”

The Bradenton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency May 2 reviewed a 15-year budget planning work sheet and determined which projects to begin this year and in 2018-19.

With guidance from city engineer Lynn Burnett, the CRA has developed an updated master plan to hardscape — incorporate architectural features — and landscape in the CRA district, which is bounded by the north side of Cortez Road, Sarasota Bay, Fifth Street South and the Gulf of Mexico.

The CRA consists of the city commission and two business members, restaurateurs John Horne, AMOB owner, and Ed Chiles, owner of the Beach House.

The CRA, along with Burnett and city attorney Ricinda Perry, reviewed the list and determined which items to address.

“This spreadsheet is a tool to help us figure out what we want to plan for and what we want to go ahead and pull the trigger on,” Perry said.

A motion to move forward with short-term projects — updated benches, garbage receptacles, retrofitted planter boxes with new landscaping, solar beacon lights, pavers and bike-path and gateway signage — passed unanimously.

Other items on the list, including a new well for irrigating the landscaping and 22 hanging baskets along Bridge Street, remain under consideration.

The estimated cost for short-term projects totals $470,052.

Commissioner Jake Spooner suggested the CRA implement the short-term projects that “can be done now” to enhance the look of the district, while considering longer-term options, including the well.

Mayor John Chappie said he is concerned the hanging baskets could become a “maintenance nightmare” and reminded the board that CRA funds cannot be used for maintenance, so the cost would fall to the city.

Members agreed to postpone discussion of the well and hanging baskets to a future meeting.

Additionally, CRA members discussed implementing plans to enhance the Historic Bridge Street Pier.

The first phase is the replacement of the floating dock for loading and unloading passengers adjacent to the pier, expected to be in place by the end of June.

The next phase — approved, but not funded — would include slips, or finger-docks, attached to the floating dock.

The final phase would be seagrass mitigation for additional finger docks between the floating dock and a city-owned dock on the south side of the pier.

Chiles suggested placing clams from the Gulf Shellfish Institute — of which he is treasurer — into the anchorage by the pier.

“We could put a half-million clams in there cheap,” Chiles said. It could amount to an attraction for people. “It’s another hook and it’s great for the water, great for the environment.”

Commissioner Ralph Cole, also CRA chair, said this supports his idea to create a “living shoreline” in the anchorage adjacent to the pier.

A motion for Chiles to work with the GSI to develop a proposal for a living shoreline for the CRA to consider, including a cost and time frame, passed unanimously.

Homeless man arrested for Holmes Beach burglary

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John Villecco Jr

A 27-year-old man stayed the night at a friend’s house without permission and he was arrested for burglary.

John Villecco Jr., listed as homeless, was arrested May 2 by Holmes Beach police for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and criminal mischief in the 5600 block of Gulf Drive.

When Villecco’s friend returned home, he found his door open and the man sleeping on his couch.

According to the police report, Villecco allegedly trashed the house and wrote on the door.

Villecco’s friend wanted him to leave, so he took him to the Manatee Public Beach, called 911 and pressed the charge.

Villecco told police he entered his friend’s home because he was scared and needed help.

Villecco said he didn’t remember writing on the door but “had things in his head I just needed to get out,” the police report stated.

Villecco was arrested and transported to the Manatee County jail, where he posted $7,620 bond and was released.

His arraignment is set at 9 a.m. Friday, June 1, in the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

Bradenton woman crashes, arrested for DUI

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Margaret Keegan, 57

A two-car crash April 22 east of the Cortez Road Bridge led the Florida Highway Patrol to arrest a Bradenton motorist for driving impaired — a DUI arrest at more than three times the legal limit.

Dispatched at 2:28 a.m., deputies reported finding Margaret Keegan, 57, in a vehicle and showing signs of impairment.

According to the report, her vehicle struck another car after she allegedly failed to brake at a stop sign at 127th Street West. No injuries were reported.

Keegan told the deputy she was driving from a friend’s house and drank three glasses of wine with food.

At the request of the FHP, Keegan agreed to field-sobriety tests, which she performed poorly, according to a deputy’s report. She was transported to the Manatee County jail.

Keegan provided two breath samples at the jail. Both measured 0.276 blood-alcohol content. The legal limit is 0.08.

In addition to the DUI charge, the FHP ticketed Keegan for running a stop sign.

She was granted a supervised release at her first appearance in court.

Keegan’s arraignment is set for 8:25 a.m. Wednesday, May 23, at the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

FEMA raises AM’s rates

The city of Anna Maria will not lose its discount on flood insurance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after all.

But, property owners will see a reduction in their FEMA discount from 25 percent to 15 percent beginning Oct. 1.

In December 2017, building official Jimmy Strickland was fired by the city commission after communications from FEMA revealed Strickland failed to properly report and provide documentation related to FEMA’s Community Rating System.

The CRS provides municipalities and its property owners discounts on flood insurance for taking steps to reduce risks with educational outreach, floodplain management, stormwater management and improved regulatory standards, among other factors.

However, Strickland told officials in December 2017 that he did not know how to complete the documentation and, not wanting to ask for help, he let it fall to the wayside.

Craig Carpenter, CRS specialist for FEMA, informed the city in December that the city was at risk of being reclassified from Class 5 to Class 10 and losing its full discount by May.

City officials scrambled in December to complete and submit the paperwork neglected by Strickland and then awaited a final decision on the city’s flood insurance discount.

In March, Carpenter emailed city engineer Lynn Burnett to inform her that FEMA had completed its review of city documents and would recommend the city drop from a Class 5 to a Class 7 rating in October.

HB seeks default in treehouse case

There’s been a swirl of motions and letters about a treehouse built without permits in 2011 on the beachfront from the county courthouse to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

The latest motion in the 12th Circuit Court came April 30 from the city of Holmes Beach seeking to default treehouse owners Lynn Tran and Richard Hazen for not properly responding to the city’s enforcement case. A default is an initial court finding when a party fails to timely plead or defend against an action.

Tran and Hazen built a two-story treehouse attached to a towering Australian pine on the beachfront at their home at 103 29th St., where they operate four vacation rental units known as Angelinos Sea Lodge.

The structure was built without state or city permits, although Hazen had an informal meeting at city hall with the then-city building inspector, who told him no permits were needed for a treehouse in response to Hazen’s inquiry.

Though there’s been no hearing set for a judge to hear the city’s latest preliminary move, it is part of a bigger picture.

Attorney Jim Dye, principal in Dye Harrison and a partner of city attorney Patricia Petruff, handling the treehouse cases for the city, said May 8 he’s waiting to see what happens in another treehouse case — one that sat dormant for nearly five years until the owners re-invigorated the case in March with a constitutional challenge to the city setback.

Judge Lon Arend set the stalled 2013 case for dismissal May 15, after press time for The Islander. The judge’s motion states he will consider keeping it open if the owners show “good cause” in a court filing before May 11.

The owners brought the case claiming the city should be stopped from enforcing its laws given the couple’s reliance on the inspector’s advice.

As of May 11, online records showed no submission indicating “good cause” from the Tran-Hazen team.

Tran said May 9 she understood a motion for summary judgment filed by their attorney in March, after the judge filed his motion, may suffice as a response. David Levin of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota has been their attorney since the controversy began.

The owners first applied for an after-the-fact permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In 2013, they filed for relief in state courts and, in one case, petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking review of a lower court judge’s order — an order that adopted the city’s position.

Litigation is now entering its sixth year, with the owners losing at each juncture.

Court decisions have upheld city orders requiring the owners to remove the structure and pay a $50 daily fine, accumulating since July 2015 and now at more than $50,000.

Before the most recent two cases began heating up in court, Mayor Bob Johnson and Tran exchanged correspondence.

In a Jan. 18 letter, Johnson told Tran and Hazen they had a legal duty to remove the illegal structure and apply for a demolition permit no later than Feb. 9.

Tran wrote back Feb. 9, claiming Holmes Beach deprived them of their rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

She also claimed she and her husband “cry for our beloved treehouse, a work of art, that put smiles on thousands of faces.”

Tran contended the city’s land development code is inconsistent or contrary to the Florida Building Code and she disputed the city fine.

They have spent more than $180,000 in their defense, she wrote.

According to court papers, the treehouse cost the owners $30,000-$50,000 to build.

Treasurer Lori Hill reported May 9 the city has spent $139,462.67 in attorneys’ fees and costs related to the cases.