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Vol. 17 No. 18 - February 15, 2017

headlines

Speed limit debate continues in Holmes Beach

HOLMES BEACH — Road rage is growing over the Florida Department of Transportation's decision to change the speed limit on a stretch of Manatee Avenue without public input.

The change was made without ceremony or notification Jan. 30, when signs were placed lowering the speed limit across the bridge from 45 to 35 miles per hour and the speed limit west of the bridge to 25 mph.

"This thing caught us all by surprise," Holmes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson said. "The first thing we heard about it was seeing the signs in the ground."

While Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer had spoken to FDOT about potentially lowering the speed limit along the quarter mile stretch of Manatee Avenue to the Manatee Public Beach, Johnson said the city had expected to be consulted on the decision and given a traffic study prior to any action taking place.

"The traffic study arrived after the fact," Johnson said.

"I don't blame the chief, and I don't blame the mayor," Commissioner Carol Soustek said of the abrupt speed limit change. "I think the way it was done is what aggravated people. It was shoved down their throats."

While some residents have accused the city of using the reduced speed limit to create a speed trap, Tokajer said only two tickets have been issued in the area since the reduction.

One of the two tickets was issued to a motorist driving 65 mph in the 25 mph zone. Tokajer said a ticket would have been issued to the motorist even at the previous 45 mph speed limit. The second motorist was stopped for travelling 46 mph in the 25 mph zone and was arrested for driving under the influence.

"It's not a speed trap," Tokajer said.

Public response to the change has been varied with residents on both sides of the aisle.

Thomas Carlson sent a letter of support to Tokajer Feb. 3, favoring the reduced speed limit.

"I believe that these reductions will improve the safety for all, especially pedestrians and bicyclists using the roadside and crosswalks, and impose very minor increases in transit times for motorists," Carlson said. "The time difference to travel one mile at 25 mph rather than 35 mph is .7 minutes or slightly less than 41 seconds. I'm sure to many this may seem like an unacceptable impact on their time, but to me it is an acceptable cost to avoid tragedy."

Kurt Janisch had a different opinion in his Feb. 4 letter to Johnson.

"The new speed zones will waste time, fuel and increase pollution with little improvement in safety," Janisch said. "Please reverse this unneeded and unpopular decision and, while you're at it, restore the speed limit on Gulf Drive in front of the school. The 15 mph school zone limit takes care of the children during the periods when they are going to and from school."

Island real estate agent Chris Gremley went one step further, stating on The Sun's social media that he met with FDOT to suggest changes to make the reduced speed limit more bearable for motorists. His suggestions included installing "reduced speed ahead" signs warning of the reduced speed limit and repositioning the speed limit signs to allow motorists time to slow down safely.

After speaking with FDOT representatives, Johnson said due to the issues in process, the state organization is leaving decisions regarding the speed limit to the city commission.

Commissioners were scheduled to discuss the speed limit and decide during their Feb. 14 meeting whether the changes stay, go or a compromise between the two is warranted.

The meeting was scheduled after press time for The Sun.

"It's just a little bit of a screw up in process," Johnson said. "FDOT will accept whatever the commission decides."

Lobbying efforts underway
Carol Whitmore

joe hendricks | SUN

Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy provides an update on
the ongoing efforts to defeat a pair of recently-filed vacation rentals bills.

ANNA MARIA – Last week, Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy recapped two meetings he recently had with lobbyist Chip Case.

For $5,000 a month, Case is leading the city's efforts to defeat two vacation rental bills that would prevent Florida cities from adopting new vacation rental regulations or enforcing local vacation rental regulations adopted after June 1, 2011.

Senate Bill 188 was proposed by Sen. Greg Steube, from Sarasota. A companion bill, House Bill 425, was filed by Rep. Mike La Rosa, from St. Cloud. The fate of both bills will be decided during the 2017 state legislative session that begins in March.

The rejection of both bills would preserve the status quo created by SB 356 in 2014, which restored some of the home rule rights municipalities lost when HB 883 was adopted in 2011. Current state law allows local governments to regulate short-term rentals, but they cannot prohibit them or regulate the duration or frequency of their use.

In 2015, the Anna Maria Commission adopted vacation rental regulations that include an annual registration process and an eight-person occupancy limit that was somewhat weakened by the occupancy exceptions later offered to rental owners who filed Bert Harris claims.

Murphy's recent meetings with Case produced multiple plans of action. The first is a grass roots communication plan that calls for citizens to contact state legislators and express their opposition to the bills. Key legislators' contact information and sample letters and e-mails are now posted at the city website, www.cityofannamaria.com. The information can be accessed by clicking the "read more" button in the announcements box at the city's homepage.

Murphy encourages letters sent by standard mail because they create a physical presence on the desks of elected officials and staff members, rather than e-mails that are easily deleted.

Murphy suggests using the sample letters as guidelines rather than copying them verbatim because mass-produced correspondence is less effective than personalized letters that are short and to the point when expressing opposition to the proposed legislation and the impact it would have on city residents.

"Tell your neighbors, tell your friends," Murphy said of the grass roots effort.

He then said Case summarized for him the "lay of the land" as to where the bills stand and where they're headed.

Murphy said Case met with a representative from the Florida League of Cities and encouraged the League to take the bills seriously.

"In the past, the League of Cities has said they supported the cities, but they're weren't necessarily walking the walk and talking the talk," Murphy said.

Case is tracking the bills through the House and Senate committees and subcommittees that could amend or kill them before they are presented to the House and Senate members for final votes. Case has identified the committee members and he plans to meet with them to discuss the impact the bills would have on Anna Maria.

HB 425 is scheduled for review by the Agriculture and Property Rights Subcommittee, the Career and Competition Subcommittee and the Commerce Committee. SB 188 will be reviewed by the Regulated Industries, Community Affairs, and Rules committees.

"We're going to have a tough time in the House because Greg Steube used to be in in the House of Representatives. He has personal relationships with the house members, so it's going to be tough for us to make much headway," Murphy said.

"In the Senate, we've got a pretty good shot. We've got some strength in the Senate," Murphy said.

The Senate's Regulated Industries Committee is chaired Sen. Travis Hutson, a senator from Flagler County who has a history of supporting city's rights to regulate rentals. Murphy suggested sending letters to Hutson as well.

"We have some strong support on the Rules committee both from Republicans and the Democrats," Murphy said of the Senate committee than includes Sen. Bill Galvano, from Bradenton.

"He has a lot of influence. The more that we can make our cause known to Sen. Galvano, the better off we are," Murphy said of Galvano, who supported SB 356 in 2014.

Tourist season booming; full steam ahead

There's no room in the inn on Anna Maria Island beginning this week and lasting through the end of March, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Elliott Falcione told the Manatee County Tourist Development Council on Monday.

During high tourist season, the Island has 98 percent occupancy, he said, which is no surprise to the TDC members who live on the Island, like Anna Maria Commissioner Doug Copeland, who suggested the TDC oppose a state legislative proposal that would further erode local governmental authority to regulate vacation rentals.

A bill filed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would eliminate city ordinances that regulate vacation rentals adopted since 2011.

"Back in 2011, the Legislature took away the ability of local governments to regulate vacation rentals," Copeland said. He added that the state later made an exception for regulating anything related to public safety.

"This bill will take that away," he said.

Anna Maria has spent tens of thousands of dollars to foster compatible relationships among tourists, rental agencies and the city, Copeland said.

"All this will be lost," he stressed.

Residents in Anna Maria see four or five cars at a rental with eight tourists, he said.

"The local infrastructure is barely adequate as it is," he pointed out. "If we increase this, we run the risk of becoming a community where people don't want to come because they can't get around."

Falcione warned that placing a two-week minimum rental restriction on vacation rentals would deter visitors and put rentals out of business, adding that rentals could not charge higher rates to make up the difference because they would be priced "out of the market."

Cities can't have such a regulation anyway unless it was passed prior to 2011, Copeland responded.

While Chairman Carol Whitmore said she supports home rule, the council did not take official action.

Visit Florida

Falcione asked the council to sign an endorsement letter to the state legislative delegation opposing a House of Representatives proposal to cut public funding of Visit Florida (see related story), the state's tourism marketing agency.

"It's not coincidental that as the Visit Florida budget has increased, visitation has increased for 5 consecutive years," Falcione said, citing the reportedly "devastating" experience of Colorado when it stopped funding tourism marketing in the 1990s.

A 2016 study by the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative that examined the economic impact of state promotional efforts in Florida, Colorado and 46 other states over 39 years – including the claim by tourism consultant Longwoods International that Colorado tourism dropped 30 percent after the state suspended tourism promotion from 1993 to 2000 – revealed no measurable impact on the state's tourism industry.

The council took no action on the letter at the meeting.

Visitation

December visitation to Manatee County in 2016 was up 5 percent from December 2015, with a 3.4 percent increase in room nights and an 8.5 percent increase in direct expenditures, according to Walter Klages, of Research Data Services, the county's tourism consultant.

On Anna Maria Island, occupancy was down 2.5 percent from the previous December to 51 percent. Average room rates on the Island were up 2 percent to $170 a night.

Most visitors came from Europe, followed by the Northeast U.S. and Florida. All feeder markets were up in the fourth quarter except Canada.

The average party size was 2.6 people with an average age of 49.6, staying an average of 6.3 days. Parties were mostly couples and families; groups of friends were down slightly in the last quarter of the year.

"For those of us who live out there, it is good to see there is a slight decrease for groups of friends," Whitmore said.

Klages told the council that another proposal by Sen. Steube, which would allow Florida concealed weapons permit holders to openly carry firearms, would probably not significantly affect tourism, although he said that it is a concern in the European market, especially Germany.

Water taxi

At the suggestion of Bradenton Beach Commissioner John Chappie, the council voted to send a letter of support to the Sarasota County Commission for a water taxi proposal, which will be heard on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 2:30 p.m. in the commission chambers.

The taxi will connect Manatee and Sarasota counties, with plans in 2018 to offer service from Bradenton Beach to downtown Bradenton, a 31-minute ride, faster than driving at this time of the year.

"So many communities have this problem, but we are lucky to have the Intracoastal Waterway and the Manatee River," Sherman Baldwin said about his taxi plan.

The water taxi, which will run from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, ties in well with the free Island Trolley, which runs until 10:30 p.m., Whitmore said.

The taxi also may stop at the convention center hotel in Palmetto being developed by newly re-elected TDC vice president David Teitelbaum and partners, Baldwin said. The 250-room, 204,000-square-foot Sheraton hotel will have an 8,000-square-foot ballroom, a 240-seat restaurant, a pool and a fitness center, and is scheduled for a 2019 opening.

When the route begins service, Island employers could get workers from Palmetto to take the taxi to work, Baldwin said.

Bradenton Beach previously passed a motion to support the water taxi service, Chappie said, adding, "I think it's important to speak with one voice."

City staff in transition

 

TOM VAUGHT | SUN

The Anna Maria and Holmes Beach mayors have discussed a
plan that could result in the Anna Maria Public Works Department
vacating its current home behind the Historical Society Museum.

ANNA MARIA – Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy and Holmes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson have discussed the possibility of moving the Anna Maria's Public Works Department to the public works building in Holmes Beach.

Murphy recently told the City Commission the tentative plan calls for the two departments to continue operating as independent entities that could share equipment and resources and assist each other in the event of a crisis or emergency.

Murphy said moving the public works department out of its current location behind the Anna Maria Island Historical Society Museum would create more space to expand the adjacent Historical Park. Last week, Murphy told the commission the area surrounding the public works garage was cleaned up and cleared of debris as part of the ongoing efforts to create more park space there.

"I've had many people ask me why we don't combine services here on the Island," Murphy said recently of the possible consolidation of public works resources.

The proposed relocation coincides with Murphy's recent restructuring of the city's building, planning and code enforcement departments, which resulted in Code Enforcement Manager Pamela Gibbs assuming the new role of Code and Building Department Manager.

Under Greer's supervision, longtime Public Works Department Director George McKay now serves in a new role as the Building Department Coordinator. His new duties include ensuring that builders, developers and the city have all the documents needed when applying for building permits.

McKay does not review or approve the permit applications, but he makes sure they move smoothly through the building and planning departments and back to the builders, developers and property owners in a timely manner.

With the possible relocation of the Public Works Department pending, Murphy does not plan to appoint a new public works director. Instead, Dean Jones was promoted to the position of public works manager and he now oversees the six-member crew.

Last week, Murphy told city commissioners he has interviewed five candidates to replace former City Planner Bruce McLaughlin, who recently resigned. Murphy said he already eliminated three of the candidates, and he hopes to make a hiring recommendation to the commission at the Feb. 23 meeting.

In the meantime, Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon has offered the temporary assistance of City Planner Alan Garrett. Garrett preceded McLaughlin as Anna Maria's planner and has made himself available to the city of Anna Maria two hours a day, four days a week.

"I appreciate the fact that Bill Shearon offered Alan's services and that Alan is willing to come back as a pinch-hitter," Murphy told the commission.

Catch the fishing festival this weekend

file photo

A vendor prepares a serving of seafood for a festival goer.

It's finally here – the 35th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival is this weekend, Feb. 18-19, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the historic fishing village.

With music, kids' activities, nautical arts and crafts, net mending demonstrations, educational wildlife exhibits, a touch tank, dock talks on the history of commercial fishing, and, of course, boatloads of fresh seafood, the festival has something for everyone.

Admission is $4, with kids 12 and under admitted free. Proceeds benefit FISH, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, to restore and expand the 95-acre FISH Preserve east of Cortez village.

To find the festival, head west toward Anna Maria Island on Cortez Road to the entrance at the Florida Maritime Museum, 4415 119th St. W.

Free parking is available east of the entrance at the FISH Preserve, a five-minute walk from the gate. Free offsite parking is available at G.T Bray Park, 5502 33rd Ave. Drive W., Bradenton (turn east off 59th Street onto 33rd Avenue Drive) or at Coquina Beach on Anna Maria Island, with a shuttle bus to Cortez ($3 round trip).

35th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival music schedule

Saturday, Feb. 18

10-11 a.m. - Shanty Singers

11:15-12:45 p.m. - Manatee River BlueGrass

12:45-1:30 p.m. - Awards and introductions

2-4 p.m. - Eric Von Band

4:30-6 p.m. - Jason Haran

Sunday, Feb. 19

10:30-noon - Soupy Davis and his band

12.30-2 p.m. – Passerine

12:30-4 p.m. - Eric Von (Bratton Store porch)

2:30-4 p.m. - Karen and Jimmy Band

4:30-6 p.m. - Koko Ray

Planning board gets a shot of youth

joe hendricks | SUN

Nineteen-year-old Monika Beard addresses the City
Commission before being appointed to the Planning
and Zoning Board.

ANNA MARIA – Nineteen-year-old Monika Beard has been appointed to the Planning and Zoning Board.

City Commissioners approved Mayor Dan Murphy's recommended appointment during the Thursday, Feb. 9, meeting.

When presenting his recommendation, Murphy said, "Monika, at 19 years old, is going to go down in history as the youngest person to ever serve on a board, as far as I can determine, in the city of Anna Maria. I feel very strongly that we need youth added to our cadre of people that are serving the city.

"We need all the fresh ideas that Monika can bring. She's willing to serve, she wanted to know how she could get involved with the city government, and this opportunity came up. We have a vacancy on our Planning and Zoning Board, and I highly recommend Monika for your consideration."

Beard then stepped to the podium and said, "I'm know I'm a lot younger than some of you, but I hope you know that I'm still going to be very dedicated, and I hope to be on the board."

Commissioner Dale Woodland spoke next and said, "Her dad, Jeff, happens to be my dermatologist. This is the first time I've ever seen Monika. Jeff's been out here a long time, and he's always asking me about the city. He's very knowledgeable about what's going on, and I assume that's transferred to his daughter."

In response to Woodland, Commissioner Carol Carter said, "I'm always thrilled to have someone who's interested in serving the city at this age, and I'll one up you: I know her mom really well."

Commissioner Nancy Yetter got a good laugh when she said, "I don't know either parent," and then asked "Why do you want to do this?"

Beard responded by saying, "I've lived on the Island my whole life. I plan on being here a long time and plan on being here a long time, and I want to be a part of making some of the changes or influencing some of the changes that are happening on the Island. I'm also really interested in wildlife conservation, so I wanted to make sure Anna Maria is not ruining its natural habitat because everyone comes here for the beach."

Yetter concluded her comments on another lighthearted note when she quipped, "It will be nice to have someone a couple years closer in age to me."

After the four attending commissioners voted unanimously in support of Murphy's recommendation, Commission Chair Doug Copeland said, "Welcome aboard."

The planning board was scheduled to meet Tuesday, Feb. 14 to discuss the formula business moratorium ordinance that pertains to franchise operations.

Beard is currently pursuing a degree in biology at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, and her class schedule allows her to return to the Island during the week to participate in the board meetings. She also serves as a volunteer for the Wildlife Inc. animal rescue and sanctuary in Bradenton Beach.

"I see this as a stepping stone for me. I'm really into wildlife conservation so I thought it would be good to get experience in the government," she said before last week's meeting began.

Leading up to her appointment, Beard was first interviewed by planning board Chair Jon Crane.

When asked about that interview, Crane said, "She's an impressive young lady that will bring enthusiasm to the board."

Jazz Fest a smoothe success

TOM VAUGHT | SUN

From left to right: Karma, KoKo Ray Hansen, Bil Bowdish
and Judy Lynn entertain at the Jazz Fest at the events pavilion
at the Sandbar restaurant.

The lure of the music was as strong as the lure of the Gulf of Mexico beyond the Sandbar events pavilion on Tuesday, Feb. 7, as Gulf Drive's Bil Bowdish and Judy Lynn joined forces with KoKo Ray Hansen and Karma to bring back some musical memories and raise money for a good cause.

The annual Jazz Fest, sponsored by Gulf Drive, the Sandbar restaurant and the Ann Maria Island Sun, raised more money than expected for the Anna Maria Island Concert Chorus and Orchestra (AMICCO) as more people came as the concert started. Organizers had to search for more chairs.

The weather was a good factor. Previous concerts suffered from too much heat or too little heat, but the weather for this one was perfect.

KoKo and Karma played the entire concert to fill in for Ted Young, who had surgery recently. He promised to be back for the Oldies concert next month.

Before the music started, organizer Nancy Ambrose said the concert was dedicated to Ruth Burkhead, an Island resident who attended all of the concerts before she moved North last year to be with family. She passed away on Aug. 7, at the age of 100.

The concert brought in residents and vacationers. Paul Donnelly, from Cooperstown, N.Y., said he was on vacation, and his daughter re commended it. He said it was a great idea.

John Barfield, from Michigan, who called himself a "student of KoKo Ray," said he and his wife, Betty, used to vacation in Ft. Myers, but they wanted to try someplace else. They found Anna Maria Island and now they're staying until April. He was also celebrating his 90th birthday.

There will be another concert fundraiser for AMICCO on Tuesday, March 14, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the same location.

Land use dispute headed for March hearing

joe hendricks | SUN

The owner of the single-story partial vacation rental on the
right objects to the two-story building on the left being used
as a vacation rental.

BRADENTON BEACH – A special master hearing has been scheduled for a Monday, March 13, at 9:30 a.m. in an attempt to resolve a land use dispute initiated by John Metz.

Metz, a member of the city's Planning and Zoning Board, initiated his complaint last April in a series of e-mails sent to Building Official Steve Gilbert. In those e-mails, Metz claimed the two-story structure at 308 Gulf Dr. S. should not be allowed to resume operations as a vacation rental because it sat vacant before and during its subsequent renovation. Wendy and George Kokolis purchased the property in September 2014 and began renovating it the following summer.

Metz lives next door at 306 Gulf Dr. S. He leases a portion of his home as a vacation rental, and he expressed interest in buying the neighboring property before the Kokolis' bought it.

"The subject property is zoned C-2 and has a history only as a rental property. Residential rental property is not a permitted use within C-2. The property is therefore nonconforming. The discontinuance of a nonconforming residential use for a period of 18 months shall constitute abandonment and such nonconforming use shall not thereafter be resumed," Metz wrote in his e-mail to Gilbert.

Gilbert responded with an e-mail that expressed the opinions of himself and City Planner Alan Garrett.

"We disagree with several of your assertions. The fact that a building is vacant does not mean it has been abandoned. Buildings are very often vacant, sometimes due to lack of occupants, sometimes due to renovations. It does not mean the use of the structure has been abandoned.

"An application for foundation repairs was submitted in May 2015 and repairs began in June 2015. That may be 15 months without occupants, but with a very clear notice to the city that the use had not been abandoned. The property has been and remains an allowable use due to its location in the Gulf Drive overlay district. As such, we do not consider this property to be a nonconforming use," Gilbert wrote.

Metz then requested a hearing at the city level to appeal Gilbert's original permitting decision.

In May, Metz received a response from City Attorney Ricinda Perry that said, "To timely challenge Mr. Gilbert's reasoning or interpretation justifying the issuance of the permit, an appeal should have been filed no later than July 8, 2015. Thus it is the opinion of this office that the application to appeal is untimely filed, and as such the city is without jurisdiction to review the matter."

In June, Metz responded by filing a lawsuit against the city of Bradenton Beach that named Gilbert and Mayor Bill Shearon as respondents.

In September, attorney Robert Lincoln filed a motion to intervene on the Kokolis' behalf, and the judge allowed Lincoln to join the city in the defense of Metz's claims. The judge also ordered the matter back to the city for a special master hearing.

Metz and his attorney, Nelon Kirkland, then objected to the use of city's existing special master, attorney William Robinson Jr., because he works for the same law firm as Perry's husband. The city was then forced to seek the services of additional attorneys to serve as alternate special masters, and attorney Lisa Gonzalez Moore will preside over the March 13 hearing at city hall.

Reappointment pending?

Metz's initial three-year term on the planning board will expire March 6. His potential reappointment will be determined by majority vote at the March 2 commission meeting, and Ralph Cole will be one of the commissioners asked to approve the reappointment.

In October, Metz sent a serious of e-mails to city officials objecting to Cole's Coastal Watersports using a portion of public beach to transport rented jet-skis, catamarans and other recreational vessels between the Gulf and the beachfront property owned by the Silver Surf Resort. City staff then determined that Cole was operating in a fully-compliant manner and no violations occurred.


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