EAST MANATEE -- In one of the most energized issues across East Manatee, residents and officials both north and south of Fort Hamer Road and Upper Manatee River Road are up in arms about whether to build a bridge to connect them.
Should the county build the two-lane bridge to accommodate growth and improve emergency response, or should they protect the environment from further development, keep peace in the residential communities and continue to make county residents travel along Interstate 75?
Last week a draft environmental study, prepared by URS Corp. for the county and issued through the U.S. Coast Guard, recommended the Fort Hamer bridge over two other options: expanding the existing Rye Bridge, or build nothing.
A public meeting is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto. Citizens can make comments concerning the study and the proposed project's impact on river navigation.
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County officials stress that the bridge's site has not been approved yet.
"It's vitally important that those who are in support of the bridge -- or opposed to the bridge -- attend the public hearing," Manatee Public Works Director Ron Schulhofer told the Herald last week. "They need to supply comment on the need for the bridge ... and on whether to locate the bridge on the Upper Manatee River.
After the public comment period ends Aug. 18, the Coast Guard will review the comments and develop a Final Environmental Impact Statement. After that, the county still must get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Wednesday's hearing is expected to draw supporters who want to accommodate growth in the area, as well as better emergency response, and opponents concerned about noise, expense, traffic volume, damage to the environment and eroded property value.
The controversy goes back more than a decade when the county began to seriously look at building the bridge as a possible north-south route. The project has been stalled by long-winded processes and funding issues. But the contention surrounding the debate continues.
Ken Bumgarner, chairman of the Waterlefe Community Development District, is a long-time supporter of the proposed Fort Hamer Bridge -- with a few caveats.
He says he wants the bridge because "the county has a right to build it" but is concerned about the impact of putting the bridge about 80 to 100 feet away from 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.
Bumgarner is also asking the county to consider a roundabout at the end of the bridge to slow traffic.
But Waterlefe's two governing bodies are divided.
Tom Davidson, a member of the Fort Hamer Bridge Committee at Waterlefe's Master Property Owners' Association, says the MPOA is against the bridge.
"We oppose the bridge because of the expense and the destruction of the visual nature area that is enjoyed by hundreds of people in Manatee County every day," he said.
The Rye Road option, which calls for widening the existing bridge from two to four lanes and widening Rye and Fort Hamer roads to accommodate extra traffic, would meet the need and the county wouldn't have to spend as much money doing it, Davidson said.
Lakewood Ranch resident June Stroup fears the Fort Hamer Bridge will bring noise, extra traffic and decreased property values to Lakewood Ranch.
"The only benefit I can see is being able to get to Ellenton without going on the interstate," Stroup said. "Would people use it? I doubt it. They'll still get on the interstate because it's the quickest way to go."
The environmental draft study cites that the Fort Hamer bridge would improve emergency response time. East Manatee Fire Chief Byron Teates agrees.
"I've lived here a good part of my life and I love the Manatee River and the Fort Hamer River," Teates said. "But as a fire chief, it is what it is as far as (response) times."
Teates said the bridge could cut response time in half.
At the end of Fort Hamer Road lies the stunning Fort Hamer Park which is also home to a rowing facility, which attracts college, high school and middle school students as well as rowing aficionados. Middle schoolers Wednesday spent their day learning to row as part of a summer camp.
"If anything, the bridge will have positive impacts on the rowing facility: more parking and greater accessibility," said Cindy Turner, Manatee County parks and recreation director.
Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, said she's also in support because the bridge would create jobs and a better evacuation route.
"There's just no downside," she said. "Now's the time. We have to get this going."