State representatives suggest eliminating Island cities

    State representatives suggest eliminating Island cities
    The Manatee Beach parking lot needs a garage, according to state officials, who propose a Manatee County takeover of all AMI cities to make it so. - Submitted | Troy Morgan/photosfromtheair.com

    MANATEE COUNTY – Members of the local state legislative delegation are making plans to permanently change the face of Anna Maria Island, beginning with a parking garage and potentially ending with the dissolution of the three Island cities.

    A citizens’ action group, Save AMI Cities, has already sprung up on Facebook with the intent of making voter and stakeholder voices heard by state legislators.

    During a Jan. 12 legislative delegation meeting, Rep. Will Robinson Jr. brought up beach access and parking issues in Holmes Beach. Robinson, a Republican, proposed introducing a bill during the upcoming state legislative session to pre-empt Holmes Beach city leaders’ decision to ban parking garages. His plan would allow a four-story parking garage on the Manatee County-owned parcel at Manatee Beach, one story higher than the city’s limit. His fellow Republican members of the delegation, Rep. Tommy Gregory, Rep. Mike Beltran, Sen. Jim Boyd and Sen. Joe Gruters, voted unanimously in favor of the proposal and putting the bill forth for consideration at the state level.

    Rep. Will Robinson Jr.
    Rep. Will Robinson Jr.

    If the proposed bill makes it through all of the levels of state government, including committees and the Senate, and gains the approval of Gov. Ron DeSantis, it would allow Manatee County commissioners to subvert local government regulations and issue their own building permits for construction on county-owned property, regardless of the city the property is located in.

    “I thought it was incumbent for the Legislature to step in and pre-empt that authority to allow a four-story parking garage if the county commission so votes and funds that parking garage to be built,” Robinson said. “It is fundamental for anyone to be able to visit our public beach and, in my view, parking spaces have been strategically taken away over the last few years under the guise of COVID to not allow folks to access the beach. Folks are getting frustrated – they can’t park, they can’t access the beach, they’re turning around and they’re going back home. And, to me, there’s nothing more important than to allow a person, a taxpayer, who pays for that beach, by the way, to visit that beach.”

    Currently, the majority of beach renourishment funding comes from state-funded renourishment programs and the county resort tax, paid by visitors, not local tax dollars.

    Parking problems

    Public beach parking in Holmes Beach has been a point of contention between city and county leaders for more than two years. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to local beaches was restricted by the state to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

    Contact Manatee County state representatives

     

    Rep. Will Robinson Jr.

    District office: 941-708-4968

    Capitol office: 850-717-5071

    Email: Will.Robinson@myfloridahouse.gov

     

    Rep. Mike Beltran

    District office: 813-653-7097

    Capitol office: 850-717-5070

    Email: Mike.Beltran@myfloridahouse.gov

     

    Rep. Tommy Gregory

    District office: 941-893-5434

    Capitol office: 850-717-5072

    Email: Tommy.Gregory@myfloridahouse.gov

     

    Sen. Jim Boyd

    District office: 941-742-6445

    Capitol office: 850-487-5020

    Email: boyd.jim.web@flsenate.gov

     

    Sen. Joe Gruters

    District office: 941-378-6309

    Capitol office: 850-487-5022

    Email: gruters.joe.web@flsenate.gov

    In Holmes Beach, city leaders closed public beach parking during the lockdown. When the beaches were allowed to be reopened, city leaders took the opportunity to create a long-planned permit parking area on some residential streets near the beach. The plan was to not only give city residents who don’t live near the beach a place to park but to also reduce traffic, trash and beachgoers relieving themselves on residential streets. Permits are available to city residents only and permit parking takes up approximately 642 spaces located solely on the sides of city streets. Other streets were labeled as no parking zones at the request of residents or due to the narrowness of the roads, eliminating about 300 parking spots. The city still has more than 1,200 public parking spots, including the parking available at Manatee Beach, within a quarter mile of the beach and more along other residential streets further away from beach access points.

    During city commission meetings, Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer has reported counting more than 40,000 vehicles coming and going on Manatee Avenue, just one of three Island access points, on an average busy beach day. That number can jump higher over holiday weekends.

    City leaders have met with state and county representatives to discuss parking problems in Holmes Beach with few resolutions found. The city’s website features a parking map to show where vehicle and low-speed vehicle/golf cart parking is located near the beach. Plans to create an interactive parking app also are underway.

    When Holmes Beach commissioners met to discuss banning parking garages last year, Manatee County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge stepped up during public comment to issue a warning if they moved forward with the ban. Van Ostenbridge said he had plans to present a proposal to build a multi-level parking garage at the county-owned Manatee Beach. Commissioners chose to move forward with the ban. The city of Bradenton Beach, where the county owns property including Cortez Beach and Coquina Beach along with two boat ramps, also has a ban on multi-level parking garages.

    Holmes Beach’s three-story height limitation on structures is written into the city’s charter, meaning it would take a charter amendment being approved by a majority of voters or the dissolution of the city to remove the restriction. Abolishing it would pave the way for high-rise development.

    Robinson said that he feels “very confident” in the proposed parking legislation and that he feels it will pass during the state legislative session beginning Monday, April 10.

    Dissolving Island cities?

    The state legislative group decided last week to look into the possibility of engaging The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study how feasible it would be to dissolve the three city governments on the Island. If that were to happen, Robinson said it would remove the city governments in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach, replacing them with Manatee County commissioners and administration.

    He said it could be a good tax break for residents who would no longer have to pay city taxes.

    In Florida, the Legislature can dissolve a municipality if either the residents of the municipality vote for dissolution or by special act. In the event of a special act by the state, a bill would have to be introduced during a legislative session, pass votes by state representatives and senators and be signed by the governor before it’s effective. The requirements for a special act involving the dissolution of a municipality state that the city in question must not be substantially surrounded by other municipalities; the county or an adjacent municipality must be willing to take on the governing of the area and arrangements have to be made to provide compensation for employees of the city.

    The closest adjacent municipality to any of the three Island cities is Longboat Key, where leaders are working diligently to have the entire town under Sarasota County jurisdiction, leaving only Manatee County leaders to take over Anna Maria Island if its three cities were dissolved. If that happened, all infrastructure, building and zoning regulations and governing would fall under the same leadership as unincorporated Manatee County – the board of county commissioners currently led by Van Ostenbridge as its chair. Instead of being represented by their fellow Island residents, Islanders would be represented by commissioners elected by residents from all over the county.

    Local elected officials’ reactions

    Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth issued a statement in reply to the legislative delegation discussions.

    Mayor Judy Titsworth

    “I am disappointed at the position that Will has taken regarding pre-empting city ordinances to construct a parking garage in a coastal community when the city currently and historically has always exceeded the number of parking spaces required for state-funded beach renourishment and interlocal agreements with the county,” Titsworth said. “As a mayor in his district, I would have appreciated Mr. Robinson to have, in the very least, given notice prior to getting out of his lane in making such a bold move. At this point in time, I shouldn’t be surprised about anything that comes from this district. I do not feel Mr. Robinson needed the support of the local delegation to move on this bill but next time he moves on a bill that will affect the lives of our city residents, I hope that he would first reach out to the representatives of the city so he can become better informed. A four-story parking garage at the entrance to our city is not in keeping with the historical character of our quaint city. For this to happen, the potential gutting of our height restrictions would also be in play. These restrictions are in our city charter. This undoubtedly is what led to the next proposal by the representative which is the consideration of the consolidation and/or dissolution of the three Island cities.”

    “I believe that is probably the biggest overstep and attack on home rule yet,” she continued. “Holmes Beach has been incorporated for over 70 years. We are a vibrant and prosperous city. Our population continues to grow. Our city is responsible for the majority of the contributions to the tourist development tax in the county and has contributed over $30 million since its inception. We continue to improve roads, sidewalks and storm infrastructure and continue to make public safety a number one goal. We have a very strong commission and numerous appointed boards. All board positions are readily filled by residents who desire to give their time to civic duty. The city of Holmes Beach is proud of not only retaining its residents but providing a tourism experience that is a top vacation destination. Property values continue to soar and our city has investors from all over the world. For a representative to single out Anna Maria Island to study dissolving our city chartered governments is a wake-up for all cities of this state. Because of this, I do not believe this will receive the legislative act that this representative is seeking.”

    In a Jan. 13 discussion with The Sun, she said she feels that any action to dissolve the cities would be the equivalent of a “hostile takeover” by the county commission. “What happened to the will of the people?” she asked, noting that it was supposed to be a politician’s job to work in the best interests of the voters.

    Addressing Robinson’s comment concerning taxes, she said there is currently a difference of $17 million between taxes paid by homesteaded residents and those without a homestead exemption in Holmes Beach. If the Island cities were dissolved and development were allowed to go unchecked, Titsworth said she feels that residents would leave, potentially allowing more properties to be acquired by short-term rental investors.

    “This is a much bigger issue,” she said. “This is about more than parking.”

    Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie echoed Titsworth’s statement, telling The Sun that while he doesn’t agree with how leaders in the neighboring city amended their parking restrictions, he too feels that the attempts by the state to subvert local government ordinances and dissolve the three cities have to do with more than just the loss of a few hundred parking spaces.

    When contacted by The Sun, Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said he does not support the state legislative delegation’s actions and does not think dissolution is a good idea. He added that he does, however, feel that there are opportunities for the three cities to share resources and work together better that are currently being missed.