Bridge battles won, war lost

The Islander Feb. 4, 1998, announces the DOT decision to halt replacement plans for the Anna Maria Island Bridge on Manatee Avenue and opt instead for repairs.

By Jennifer Glenfield
Special to The Islander

Motorists lined up on the Cortez Bridge in the early 1990s waiting for boats to pass through the open drawbridge were likely handed a flyer urging them to save Anna Maria Island.

“You’ve Found Paradise,” one of the flyers read at the top, in green print. And, at the bottom, “You’ve just been handed the way to save it.”

The flyers were printed by Save Anna Maria Inc., a nonprofit founded by island residents to challenge island bridge proposals they felt could negatively impact their community.

Included on many of the flyers were calls for others to join their cause. The papers asked for a membership fee and promised an official membership card, a newsletter and to challenge to development. Incorporated in 1993, SAM was motivated by Florida Department of Transportation proposals to replace the island bridges.

In SAM documents archived at the Manatee Public Library, the group said it was formed because islanders felt “disgusted” by how the DOT handled the bridge replacement proposals — without community consideration or input.

Members demonstrated on weekends and even held a straw poll at island polling locations on Election Day 1992 — a move some Holmes Beach commissioners found disruptive.

Now, more than 20 years later, SAM is only a memory, but a well documented one. Members kept track of minutes, budgets, letters to government officials, meeting agendas and newspaper clippings and organized them in three-ring binders.

Nancy Deal, a SAM member since 2001, took those binders to the Central Library in Bradenton, where they’re archived in the local history section.

Among mundane details of building materials, traffic studies and budgets, the scrapbook-like binders chronicle how members of the community won battles over “megabridges” with the DOT.

SAM membership grew rapidly after its inception with more than 70 members in the early days. With more members, came resources. The group was able to mount a legal challenge disputing the permit application to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge over environmental concerns. In 1995, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recommended denial of the permit.

Three years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District denied the permit application in administrative hearings, brought forward by SAM.

Around the same time, SAM helped earn the island governments a seat at the metropolitan planning organization’s table, a body that deals with infrastructure plans.

And while SAM was the driving force behind bridge replacement protests, it was not without help from the community in Cortez.

“We were a team because they were opposing it (the Cortez Bridge), and we were opposing it,” said Linda Molto, Cortez resident.

Molto said she spent many weekends on the bridge with SAM members. And when she wasn’t demonstrating roadside, Molto was working with Mary Fulford Green to get Cortez on The National Register of Historic Places. Funded by the state of Florida, Green and Molto worked with city planners to earn the historic designation through the Waterfronts Florida Partnership Program in 1999.

The process took three years and resulted in a comprehensive plan that acts as a guide for the future of the village.

“We decided what we wanted Cortez to look like in 100 years, and it’s how it looks now,” said Molto.

While Cortezians were trying to preserve the fishing village and SAM members took to the courts, Sarasota County held hearings for what would become the Ringling Causeway Bridge — a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge. That DOT project met with some resistance but moved forward and, over the years, Sarasota’s skyline grew into its tall bridge.

For residents who have opposed the bridge proposals in Manatee County, the variables are different.

“We’re two low-rise communities,” Molto said of Cortez and Bradenton Beach.

Cortez and Bradenton Beach have height restrictions of two-stories in Cortez and three-stories in Bradenton Beach above FEMA regulations. A 65-foot bridge would tower above other structures at that time on both sides of the waterway.

“One only has to go see the Ringling Bridge under construction and realize the awesome concrete structure is not what anyone wants,” Katie Pierola wrote in a 2002, then SAM president and a Bradenton Beach resident.

By 2002, instead of replacement, the DOT repaired the Anna Maria Island Bridge. The repair work, completed in 2008, closed the bridge for 45 days, down from the planned 75-day closure. But as the repairs were being completed, public notices went out on another DOT proposal to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge with a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge.

Manatee County commissioners approved the proposal.

“DOT learned what they needed to do without getting caught in a trap,” said Deal.

The government agency held public meetings and addressed environmental concerns raised the first time around. Community resistance had lessened. SAM membership numbers had dwindled by the late 2000s.

“We didn’t have the resources. We didn’t have the people,” said Deal. “People were less concerned about quality of life and more concerned with getting traffic here as quickly as possible.”

By 2006, SAM primarily held workshops and speaker series in place of its on-the-streets, at-the-polls activism of its early days. It dissolved in October 2017.

Many original members of the group have since died or moved away.

Deal, who stayed a SAM member until its dissolution, sat on the DOT sponsored aesthetics committee last year for the 65-foot Anna Maria Island Bridge SAM fought against.

“I wanted to honor those who had founded SAM,” she said.

She knew the fight was over, but wanted an input to ensure safety and appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, she said.

“We aren’t Rome. This is as old as we can get,” Deal said. “But there are things we can do to preserve our island.”

To be continued….

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