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Date of Issue: May 17, 2007

Annexation of boat ramp returns to agenda

The future of new rest room facilities at Kingfish Boat Ramp might be grounded in whether the property remains in unincorporated Manatee County or is annexed to Holmes Beach.

Members of the Palma Sola Scenic Highway Committee learned last week that because the county-operated ramp is currently in unincorporated Manatee County, proposed new rest rooms must be elevated under the county's own regulations.

"We would have to build a bathroom 19 feet in the air," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, former mayor of Holmes Beach.

If Kingfish remained under county control but was annexed to Holmes Beach, the rest rooms possibly could be built at ground level because the city's code is different from the county's regulations, according to Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of conservation lands management.

The county is currently removing non-native, invasive Brazilian pepper trees near Kingfish and along Manatee Avenue and the Palma Sola Causeway.

After the tree removal, county officials hope to go forward with improvements at Kingfish, including a reconfiguration of the parking lot, landscaping and construction of rest-room facilities at the eastern edge of the ramp.

Last summer, Holmes Beach officials, who long thought that Kingfish was within city limits, and officials with Manatee County sometimes engaged in contentious communication over preliminary plans for the ramp.

Meanwhile, a survey of the property determined that Kingfish, in fact, was in unincorporated Manatee County.

Talks continued and the plans were amended to the apparent satisfaction of Holmes Beach officials and neighbors to the ramp, primarily residents of Westbay Cove condominiums.

In November, Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger asked then County Commission Chairman Joe McClash to back a voluntary annexation of the property.

The newly elected mayor and city commissioners, along with Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine, were concerned about policing and maintaining safety at Kingfish. Their feeling was that Holmes Beach police lacked jurisdiction to patrol at Kingfish, and Manatee County Sheriff's Office personnel were frequently too far away.

The county commission rejected the invitation, sending a letter to Holmes Beach officials stating that the board did not support annexation, although they were willing to engage in discussions about operations in the area.

But some are wondering whether the county commission will reconsider.

"There's room now to reopen discussion," said Hunsicker.

"I'm speaking as an individual and not the county," he emphasized. "I still think there is an opportunity for a continued discussion between the board [of county commissioners] and Holmes Beach to bring about more cost-effective and efficient controls for public safety coverage and in the manner of landscaping and building improvements at Kingfish Boat Ramp."

Whitmore, a new member of the scenic highway committee, also supports the idea of Holmes Beach annexing the property.

"I've always supported Holmes Beach annexing [the land] to the bridge for public safety reasons," she said.

Holmes Beach City Commission Chair Sandy Haas-Martens, also a member of the scenic highway group, said, "For years I'd always been under the impression that that was our property to take care of. So I mean it was like news to me when it wasn't Island property."

Haas-Martens said she continues to think that given Holmes Beach Police Department's proximity to the ramp, "its only logical" the city has policing authority in the area.

Also potentially at stake - the rest room facilities.

Hunsicker said it seemed unlikely the county would proceed with building new rest room facilities if they must be raised. Rather, the county would continue "to provide port-a-lets that are portable and can be moved out of harms way."

Bill Saunders, Holmes Beach assistant superintendent of public works, said he would have to see the design plans to determine whether the restrooms facilities could be built on the ground if the ramp was located in Holmes Beach.

He added, "I can't imagine why it would have to be elevated" if built in Holmes Beach.

The county was waiting to complete the Kingfish improvement plans until after the ongoing tree removal, which Hunsicker said is about 80 percent complete.

The next step, Hunsicker said, would be another meeting between county officials and residents near Kingfish, as well as new conversations with Holmes Beach officials.

The boat-ramp project, he added, might be impacted by possible budget cuts that would be mandated by state tax reform laws. State lawmakers will meet in a June special session to take up property tax reduction legislation.

"Projects like Kingfish and other ramps around the county would definitely be affected and, whether or not those affects call for a cancellation of the project is really a decision that would have to be weighed by the board of county commissioners," Hunsicker said.