Neighbors north, south of Manatee River weigh in on Fort Hamer Bridge

srocco@bradenton.comFebruary 2, 2014 

EAST MANATEE -- As a construction date for the Fort Hamer Bridge becomes more likely, tensions are rising from neighbors north and south of the Manatee River.

Support for the bridge has been mostly positive, with some protests lingering in the Lakewood Ranch and Waterlefe neighborhoods.

After a Coast Guard review and an official recording of its bridge project recommendation, construction on the new bridge could start late summer/early fall, said Ron Schulhofer, Manatee county public works director.

"We've had constant feedback," Schulhofer told the Herald. "There's a lot of people saying 'How come you're not building this bridge?' "

The bridge will connect Fort Hamer Road and Upper Manatee River Road across the river, providing another north-south route besides Interstate 75.

Neighborhoods to the north, mostly in Parrish, are firm

supporters of the bridge. For them, it's another means of traveling south to the Lakewood Ranch area without having to drive all the way to I-75.

Barbara Welson, a resident of River Woods in Parrish, is ecstatic to have another route to the Lakewood Ranch/University Park area.

"The bridge will help tremendously. A lot of people will go to Lakewood Ranch and shop. It'll be much closer than the interstate," said Welson, 66.

And Leslie Rook, a resident of Forest Creek in Parrish and a Coldwell Banker Realtor specializing in Lakewood Ranch, Parrish and Ellenton, is eager for the route, as it will help her better navigate around the county.

"I work off of State Road 70. To have another option to take instead of going through the woods is great. I'm very excited about it," she said.

Rook predicts the bridge will help her sell more homes.

"One of the biggest complaints among clients is that we're too far out," she said. "Even though we're only six miles from the interstate ... people think we're too far out."

Pat Tozer, who also lives in Forest Creek, wants the bridge because it will provide another route in case of an emergency. Case in point: the accident Tuesday in which the I-75 overpass at University Parkway were damaged, causing road closures and traffic snarls for two days.

"I was caught in that traffic and it took me three hours to get home from State Road 64," she said.

Schulhofer said he received many calls and emails from pro-bridge residents who pointed out that a Fort Hamer Bridge could have alleviated some of the congestion: "I got bunch of emails saying 'Now if we had that bridge...' They're fussing at me because we don't have it now."

Alex Beasley, a Realtor in Medallion Home's Twin Rivers community, predicts that the bridge will spur the county's economy. Potential home buyers from the northwest -- places like Ohio and Michigan -- are counting on this bridge, he said.

"The number of people coming in who already know about it and are basing their decision on whether or not it's going to be built is incredible ... there's a lot more knowledge about this than expected," Beasley said. "These are early retirees, empty nesters, even families ... and our ability to attract those people into Manatee County and get them to build homes here and pay taxes is important. This bridge is really going to help us unlock new Manatee."

In River Wilderness Golf and Country Club, a community with more than 700 homes, residents are also welcoming the bridge.

"It'll probably take off 20 to 30 minutes of travel time and gives us a road to go south on," said Jim Andries, an HOA board member in River Wilderness.

Andries said he thinks a bridge might help drive new members to the country club or homebuyers to Island Plantations, a new section of the neighborhood being developed.

But residents in neighborhoods south of the bridge site are less excited about a Fort Hamer Bridge. They are dreading an increase in traffic in normally quiet areas.

Phyllis Troy, assistant secretary of Lakewood Ranch's Community Development District 1, lives in the Summerfield neighborhood off of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and is worried about congestion there.

"I don't feel like I want the whole world traveling down Lakewood Ranch Boulevard," she said.

Troy said she has no reason to use the bridge -- she barely uses I-75.

Waterlefe Golf & River Club, a golfing community off of Upper Manatee River Road, will sit at the south end of the bridge and will also get the brunt of the traffic.

But Ken Bumgarner, a Waterlefe CDD chairman, supports the bridge -- with a few caveats.

He says he wants the bridge because "the county has a right to build it." But he is concerned about the impact of putting the bridge close to Waterlefe's back gate, a secondary entrance and exit to the community. He wants to make sure residents can still safely turn right and left when pulling out, and that a traffic light should be installed near the bridge to prevent speeders.

"If you ask anyone in this community, we would prefer the bridge not be built. Would you want a bridge in your backyard?" Bumgarner said. "But we believe if the county works to mitigate the issues, the bridge will be OK."

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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