HOLMES BEACH – It was the final chance for the public to learn about the options for the future of the Anna Maria Island Bridge and air their concerns, ask questions or voice their support for an option.
Eleven people spoke and nine of those said they preferred a low-level drawbridge, much like the one that is there now.
The Florida Department of Transportation held its final public hearing at St. Bernard Catholic Church on its Project Development and Environmental (D&E) study and it was an opportunity for the layman to learn the latest on the bridge options or the activist to show a preference. Members of Save Anna Maria (SAM) set up tables in front of the church entrance with notebooks full of paperwork collected by the group 17 years ago, when it successfully challenged a highway department attempt to replace the drawbridge with a 65-foot, fixed span. Former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola had kept all that information for all these years.
In that first attempt, FDOT was stopped from replacing the drawbridge because it did not provide the required public notice. This latest attempt gave the public three hearings at different times of the year with several options including height, alignment, number of sidewalks and width of lanes.
Among the options also was a no-build rehab of the current bridge, which just underwent a $10.5 million rehab, and a tunnel instead of a bridge. FDOT ruled out the tunnel because of cost.
Last Thursday’s hearing attracted more than 100 people, according to FDOT officials who kept track via sign-in sheets. The comments heard at the meeting and the written comments that are due by April 9 will be put with the rest of the comments collected over the past nine months and FDOT will make its choice sometime in June, according to project engineer Chris Piazza. That decision will be sent to the U.S. Coast Guard for its approval.
During the public comment segment, at the end of the hearing, several speakers made eloquent arguments for their choices.
"Anna Maria Island has a quiet atmosphere with a small, but functional drawbridge," said Thomas Mitchell, who has owned a condominium unit on the Island for 23 years. "Now comes this potential destroyer of this way of life."
Mitchell insinuated that Longboat Key might be pressuring FDOT to build a tall bridge. He said an FDOT survey of people living on the Island and attending public hearings was full of holes while an Internet survey by the Anna Maria Island Sun was, in his opinion, more accurate.
In the latest FDOT survey, 69 percent wanted a tall bridge and 12 percent wanted a low-level drawbridge. The results were similar to an earlier FDOT survey in which 66 percent wanted a tall bridge and 9 percent favored a low drawbridge. In The Sun’s survey, 41 percent of those responding said they wanted to rebuild the existing bridge, while 44 percent said they wanted a tall, fixed-span bridge. Itchell said the choice of a tall bridge would have all the earmarks of a taxpayer revolt and lawsuit.
Bib Rosis, of Holmes Beach, said while opponents of the tall bridge argue that higher winds on a high bridge would force officials to close that type of bridge before a low-level drawbridge, he feels a tall bridge would avoid flooding.
"I personally have seen waves spill over the causeway blacktop at wind speeds well below hurricane strength,” Rosis said.
He also said that a 65-foot fixed-span would not be a mega bridge. A 130-foot-tall structure like the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a mega bridge.
William Wamester, of Anna Maria, said that during a hurricane, it would be better to have a low-level bridge because of wind speeds, but there is another reason, too – ambience.
"Our lifestyle cries for a low level bridge," he said. "Traffic backup is not a problem, it’s part of the charm of the Island."
SAM President Ursula Stemm said it is a known fact that the Manatee County commissioners are working together with FDOT to get a tall bridge and she asked if there has been an environmental impact statement filed on the replacement project yet.
SAM Secretary Nancy Deal said she drives off the Island to work and back every work day and she has been stopped by the drawbridge maybe three times since August. She talked about other tall structures.
"I agree that the new Ringling Bridge is a beautiful bridge, but it does not belong on Anna Maria Island," she said. "The Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building are beautiful structures, but they are not for Anna Maria Island."
The other tall bridge support came from John Cagnina, son of the late former mayor of Anna Maria, Ernie Cagnina. He said if you have to worry about the height of a bridge during evacuation, it’s too late.
"When you evacuate Anna Maria Island, there should not be any wind speed," he said. "The sun should be shining."
The next step is up to FDOT.