FISH sends statement to court opposing Cortez megabridge

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A view of the Cortez Bridge looking west from Cortez to Bradenton Beach. The DOT plans to replace the low drawbridge with a 65-foot-clearance fixed span that many in Cortez have argued would alter the character of the historic fishing village. Islander Photo: Ryan Paice

The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage is signing on to oppose plans to build a Cortez megabridge.

FISH members voted unanimously Sept. 14 to submit a letter to the U.S. District Court supporting a settlement offer with the Florida Department of Transportation asking for a 35-foot-clearance drawbridge rather than the DOT’s planned 65-foot-clearance fixed span.

The DOT announced last fall, with the release of a project development and environment study, its plan to replace the existing 17-foot-clearance bridge, which was built in 1956-57.

Many Cortezians have argued the DOT’s plans would devastate the character of the historic fishing village, as well as negatively impact local business and the environment.

“Though we understand the need and support the replacement of our existing bridge, we oppose the overwhelming size and footprint of this megastructure and the impact it will have on our small community,” FISH’s letter states.

“Cortez is a unique historic place, established in 1886, it is one of, if not the only, commercial fishing community left on the Gulf Coast,” the letter continues. “We would like it to be known that we support the settlement request made by the plaintiffs.”

FISH member Jane von Hahmann said the letter was succinct.

“It’s very short,” said von Hahmann. “Very sweet. I think it gets to the point and that’s what we need.”

FISH’s letter is the latest oppositional effort to the proposed megabridge.

Legal challengers Joe McClash, Joe Kane, Linda Molto and von Hahmann petitioned the DOT last year for an administrative hearing so they could voice objections to the megabridge.

The DOT rejected the petition, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because it is acting on behalf of the federal government for the bridge project.

So the four pushed their legal challenges against the megabridge in state and federal courts.

McClash, a former county commissioner, as is von Hahmann, said the offer was made in late July.

The offer states, “The 35-foot bascule (draw) bridge would provide the relief plaintiffs seek,” so the challengers “would no longer object to the replacement bridge or bring subsequent challenge.”

It continues, stating the 35-foot-clearance option for the bridge would provide access when closed to 78% of boat traffic and access to all vessels on opening the bascule. Whereas, the DOT’s planned fixed span would be unusable for around 5% of vessels.

McClash, who has led the pending challenges, told The Islander Sept. 18 that a megabridge would work for the Anna Maria Island Bridge site, but not the Cortez Bridge site, with a fishing village on one side and a limited landing strip for vehicles at the Bradenton Beach terminus of the bridge.

“The DOT’s plans for the Cortez Bridge are just overly intrusive to the village of Cortez,” McClash said. “The walls that it would create would be as tall as the Bridgeport condominiums on the other side of the waterway.”

“It’s just an ill-conceived plan that has no respect to accommodate these things,” he continued.

In a Sept. 16 statement to The Islander, DOT spokesman Brian Rick said, “The department acknowledges receipt of the plaintiffs’ proposed resolution. However, this matter is currently in litigation and further comment cannot be provided at this time.”

The DOT announced last October that design for the fixed-span bridge “is now underway and right of way is funded in fiscal years 2021, 2024 and 2025.”

Construction of a new high bridge would cost an estimated $70 million and wouldn’t be completed for at least 10 years.