SAM disbands, but legacy remains

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Ursula Stemm, then president of Save Anna Maria Inc., talks to about 30 people in March 2016 at a gathering at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Holmes Beach, as SAM secretary/treasurer Nancy Deal walks next to a table with Suncoast Waterkeeper literature. Islander Photos: Kathy Prucnell
Former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola, who served during the time when the Florida Department of Transportation proposed to replace the Cortez and Anna Maria Island bridges with megaspans, was a dedicated SAM leader. She compiled detailed reports and studies on the bridge proposals, including the lawsuit that halted the AMI Bridge, into 12 three-ring binders and three scrapbooks of news articles — all available at the Island Library in Holmes Beach. Islander File Photo: Bonner Joy

The David and Goliath story of Save Anna Maria Inc. appears in its last chapter.

The engine that drove the nonprofit to battle against the Florida Department of Transportation plans for a megabridge to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge on  Manatee Avenue in court — and win — is out of steam.

Incorporated Sept. 30, 1993, SAM disbanded with notice filed with the Florida Secretary of State in October 2017.

The group distributed its coffers to nonprofits with similar interests, giving the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage $3,621.56; Suncoast Waterkeeper Inc. $2,451.58; and $1,000 to the Manatee County League of Women Voters, according to Nancy Deal, longtime secretary/treasurer of SAM.

The funds were accumulated through dues, donations and fundraisers.

Deal said each member was polled before the decision and agreed to the dissolution and distribution of funds in the treasury.

SAM originally formed to fight megabridges to Anna Maria Island, as proposed by the Florida Department of Transportation in the early 1990s. The group stalled the DOT’s first proposals to rebuild the Cortez Road and Manatee Avenue drawbridges, built in 1957, for 20 years.

“I grieve for SAM, will especially miss the people I came to know best, the first members Jim Kissick, Katie Pierola and Billie Martini and, later, Carol Soustek and Ursula Stemm. They brought, and continue to bring, honor to this community. We all know some folks who only bring exploitation and shame,” Deal wrote in a Jan. 18 email to The Islander.

Pierola, a SAM pioneer and 1989-92 mayor of Bradenton Beach, reminisced about how the group, when 50 members strong, fought the DOT’s proposals for four bridges.

Soustek recognized SAM as dedicated volunteers with great skills who worked hard against an unbending DOT.

She recalled an early meeting with the DOT about a plan to block the causeway, construct four lanes and a second bridge on Manatee Avenue, and DOT representatives trying “to ram it down our throats.”

SAM fought the plans, voiced concern about impacts on mangroves, seagrass beds, stormwater discharge and other environmental issues.

In 1997, in SAM v. DOT, a state appeals court upheld a Florida Department of Environmental Protection decision to deny DOT a permit for its fixed-span bridge due to concerns for seagrass nurseries and shallow waters surrounding the bridge location.

The court affirmed an administrative hearing officer’s conclusion that the DOT had failed to provide “reasonable assurances” to the DEP on turbidity, biological integrity and other environmental elements.

Deal credited former members Bunny Garst and her husband, former judge Claflin Garst Jr., for the successful litigation.

Other contributors to the fight included former Holmes Beach Mayor Bob van Wagoner, who also sued the DEP and represented himself at the hearings, and Bea Flanagan and Ann Shaw, who gathered evidence for the hearings.

After the bridge fight, SAM evolved as a grass-roots organization, supporting environmental education, coastal cleanups and the preservation of Grassy Point for a public nature preserve in Holmes Beach.

The DOT returned in the 2000s with new plans for the Anna Maria Island and Cortez bridges with environmental studies, data, public meetings, as well as citizen surveys.

SAM resurfaced to speak out against the DOT plans, but was stretched thin, having lost members due to an aging and dwindling island population.

Survey results showed favor for an Anna Maria Island Bridge replacement — 66 percent supported a high-level bridge in 2008 and 70 percent preferred the high-level bridge in 2009 — although SAM members criticized the polls as outdated, unscientific and not limited to stakeholders.

Deal said she hopes a new governor will stop the DOT’s plans for megabridges.

The Anna Maria Island Bridge is planned as a 65-foot high, fixed-span bridge with two travel lanes and two safety lanes. The design plans are expected in 2022, but it is not funded.

The DOT has not announced its design for a new Cortez Bridge.

Deal views high-level bridges as unnecessary, dangerous to the seagrasses, nurseries, manatees, and the existing drawbridges as repairable and among the last vestiges of old Florida on the island.

Deal, Soustek and other former SAM members continue to speak out as community watchdogs and lobby city and county commissions, regulatory agencies and state lawmakers.

Pierola is seeking petition signatures for a county charter, aimed at giving more say-so to citizens. She and others have spoken out against the Aqua by the Bay development on Sarasota Bay near Cortez.

“The legacy of SAM is grass roots,” Deal said, adding there’s no such thing as a lost cause.

“If people get together, they can win. SAM beat the state of Florida,” she added. “If you believe in something you can fight for it — that’s the legacy of SAM.”

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