Opponents of the proposed Cortez megabridge have taken their case to a state appeals court.
Former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash and three Cortez residents — including another former county commissioner — are asking the 2nd District Court of Appeal to overturn a Florida Department of Transportation ruling not to hold a hearing on objections to the agency’s bridge plans.
The DOT maintains it was acting on behalf of the federal government when the state agency announced last fall it would build a 65-foot-clearance fixed span to replace the Cortez drawbridge. Therefore, the DOT says, the complaint needs to be heard by a federal judge, not a state administrative hearing officer.
“This decision defies logic and is in direct conflict with the statute and would be an absurd interpretation of the law,” McClash wrote in the brief he filed Feb. 14 with the appeals court.
The DOT declined to comment.
“The Florida Department of Transportation has no additional information to provide at this time, since this issue is still in the litigation process,” spokesman Brian R. Rick said in a Feb. 20 email to The Islander.
The DOT has 20 days to respond to McClash’s brief, and he then has 20 days to respond to the agency’s brief.
McClash estimates it could take the appeals court about three months to announce its decision.
He says he is guardedly optimistic.
“I feel like it’s about 50-50 or better,” he told The Islander Feb. 20 about the chance to get a hearing. “The more research I did, the more it seemed the state acted inappropriately.”
The DOT announced Oct. 10, 2019, it would proceed with a $6.2 million design plan to replace the 63-year-old bridge, one of two spans that connect Anna Maria Island with the mainland. The transportation agency has previously announced its plans to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge, the drawbridge on Manatee Avenue that connects Holmes Beach to the mainland, with a 65-foot-clearance fixed span.
McClash filed a petition Oct. 29 for a formal administrative hearing on 25 objections to the state’s plan to replace the Cortez Bridge.
The DOT rejected McClash’s petition Nov. 13.
He filed an appeal Nov. 22 that was rejected by the DOT Dec. 10.
McClash stated his intention in January to take the case to the state appellate court.
Opponents of the megabridge say it will destroy the character of the fishing village, designated a federal historic district in 1995. Many Cortez residents have been fighting the tall span since the DOT revealed a previous replacement megabridge in 1989. The agency retracted that plan after fierce opposition by Cortez residents.
Linda Molto, a 35-year Cortez resident, is one of those opponents.
“We are not going to give up the fight on the bridge,” she told The Islander Feb. 20. “This is something we in Cortez believe in.”
The 65-foot-clearance fixed span would eliminate the need to raise the drawbridge to allow large boats to pass underneath, but it would remain a two-lane bridge.
“Building a big bridge doesn’t do anything to help the traffic situation,” Molto said. “That’s the problem.”
Traffic on Cortez Road has increased significantly in the past few years, Molto maintains. She blames development east of Cortez.
“We are still going to have the same number of people and probably more because they’ll think a new bridge would help,” she said. “Good luck, because you’re going to be stuck, high on a bridge.”
The bridge has a clearance height now of about 17 feet, and underwent major repairs in 1996, 2010 and 2015. The DOT says it is not economically sound to keep repairing it.
The DOT estimates it will cost at least $72 million to build the new bridge, which wouldn’t be completed for another 10 years or so.
McClash, who served on the county commission 1990-2012, filed the petition on behalf of Molto and two others: Jane von Hahmann, a 43-year Cortez resident who served on the county board 2001-08, and Joe Kane, a Cortez resident and activist for more than two decades.
McClash vowed their fight is far from over, even if the state appeals court rejects his motion.
“The other avenue would be a federal challenge,” he said.
He hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“I’m optimistic that the district court of appeal will give us a fair shot,” he said.
If not, he said, the job will become tougher.
“We also know the power of government. I have to be a realist. They have more money and lawyers.”