Vol. 17 No. 23 - March 22, 2017
Water taxi service starting soon
joe hendricks | SUN
Passengers boarding the Island Hopper for Friday's shakedown cruise.
BRADENTON BEACH – Captain Jeff Stephens is launching a new water taxi service, and last week he took a dozen passengers out for a shakedown cruise.
On Friday afternoon, invited guests gathered on the Historic Bridge Street Pier in Bradenton Beach while waiting to board the Island Hopper, a 27-foot, 20-passenger Carolina skiff that will provide the water taxi service known as the Gulf Islands Water Shuttle.
Stephens plans to begin regular service on Sunday, March 26, and the skiff will provide service four times daily to and from the north end of Longboat Key, with stops at the Mar Vista restaurant and the Whitney Beach Plaza.
Stephens said he has an arrangement with the plaza that will allow passengers traveling from Longboat Key to park there. The canal and seawall behind the Longbeach Café will serve as the plaza's point of arrival and departure.
Stephens is also contemplating potential stops at the South Coquina Boat Ramp.
The water taxi schedule will resemble a bus schedule and offer scheduled trips four times a day, starting around 11 a.m. Stephens said the Bradenton Beach to Longboat Key loop will take about 90 minutes.
A one-way pass from Bradenton Beach to Longboat Key or vice versa will cost $10. A round-trip pass will cost $20. A three-day pass will cost $55 and a seven-day pass will be $100, with discounts for children.
"The schedule will be evolving and changing. It'll be expanding both north and south," Stephens said, noting that he hopes to expand service to Holmes Beach.
Stephens also owns the Island Pearl, the 50-foot former Navy launch he uses for sunset cruises, dolphin cruises and private parties. He said the Pearl is too big to navigate the smaller spaces required of a water taxi.
He has been considering a water taxi service for five years, and he feels that now the right time to do it – in part because city and county officials frequently mention the need for alternative transportation on and around the Island. Stephens sees his water taxi service as one element in the greater alternative transportation hub concept being developed by Adventure Away owner Walter Loos and others.
Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon and Vice Mayor John Chappie were on hand for the launch, but did not take the 20-minute cruise to Mar Vista, where complimentary soft drinks and hors d'oeuvres awaited.
Before the Island Hopper set sail, Chappie said he thought this was an important endeavor; and he hopes Bradenton Beach will be a leader in the efforts to attract more water taxis and ferries.
"It's all part of the plans to develop water-bound transportation that takes our visitors and residents off the roads," Shearon said.
Robert Wiltz piloted the Island Hopper from the pier to Mar Vista, which allowed Stephens to serve as tour guide and business promoter. When the Island Hopper arrived at Mar Vista, Chappie was there to greet it.
While seated on restaurant's outdoor patio, passenger and Holmes Beach Commissioner Carol Soustek said, "We've been working toward something like this for quite a while, and it's a pleasure to see that private entrepreneurs have put together such a beautiful plan. I think it's going to spearhead others that have been thinking about doing the same thing."
To book a ride once service begins, call 941-780-8010 or visit www.GulfIslandsWaterShuttle.com.
Trail funding request
hits a snag
BRADENTON BEACH – City commissioners support a funding request for the installation of exercise equipment along the paved trail at Coquina Beach, but they disagree on how the request should be presented to county officials.
The project was first proposed by Scenic WAVES chair Tjet Martin in January. With the support of her committee, Martin then contacted county officials and the other Island mayors to gauge their interest in funding the project using the county's beach concession fund.
In February, Vice Mayor John Chappie suggested the funding request be formally submitted to the county in the form of a commission-approved resolution that would also be signed by the Anna Maria and Holmes Beach mayors. Chappie said the funding request should come directly from the three Island cities and not from an appointed committee member. The commission then directed City Attorney Ricinda Perry to draft the resolution.
It was learned later that Chappie had incorrectly interpreted the county resolution that pertains to the expenditure of beach concession funds. The county simply requires a joint letter of support signed by all three mayors.
When the requested resolution was presented at last Thursday's meeting, Mayor Bill Shearon said he met with Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy and Holmes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson earlier in the week and was told they would not sign a formal resolution, but they would sign a joint letter of support.
Perry questioned whether Murphy and Johnson's reluctance stemmed from a March 10 e-mail they received from Shearon, which she then read aloud.
"I am attaching a copy of the joint resolution prepared by the city attorney for commission consideration March 16. Commission was led to believe a joint resolution was necessary. It was later confirmed by (County Administrator) Ed Hunzeker the resolution was not necessary," Shearon's e-mail said.
Perry questioned why the mayor sent the resolution to the other mayors before its final language was approved by his own commission.
"It is shocking to me that you would go to the other Island mayors first," she said.
Chappie acknowledged that a resolution is not required by the county, but since it had already been requested by unanimous commission vote, he felt the mayor was obligated to carry out that directive. Shearon then took exception to Chappie's suggestion that he was not fulfilling his mayoral duties.
The commission eventually voted 4-1 in favor of the resolution being signed by Shearon and sent to the other two mayors. Shearon cast the opposition vote and after the meeting he refused to sign the resolution. On Friday afternoon, he acquiesced and signed it.
After Thursday's meeting ended, it was learned that Shearon had already obtained Murphy and Johnson's signatures on a joint letter of support. Their signatures were dated that day. Shearon's signature was dated one day earlier.
The signed letter was an altered version of an unsigned letter addressed to County Commission Chair Betsy Benac that Perry submitted for inclusion in the meeting packet. The commission never authorized Shearon to alter the letter, sign it or forward it to the other two mayors; and the signed letter must still be approved by the commission before it can be submitted to the county.
In an e-mail sent to Perry on Sunday, Shearon explained how the letter language was altered by the three mayors.
"We reviewed the county resolution and determined the resolution was not necessary or acceptable for their two cities. We changed some wording in your letter to Chair Benac and the county commissioners," he wrote.
Shearon was scheduled to meet with county staff Monday to discuss the project.
Submitted | www.myfloridahouse.gov
Representing the city of Holmes Beach, lobbyist Cari Roth
expresses opposition to HB 425.
TALLAHASSEE – The vacation rental bill (HB 425) filed by State Rep. Mike La Rosa (R-St. Cloud) has cleared its first legislative hurdle.
On Tuesday, March 14, the Agriculture and Property Rights Subcommittee ruled the bill favorable by a 9-6 margin. The house bill's next stop will be the Careers and Competition Subcommittee. As of Friday, that session had not been scheduled.
Filed as a companion to Sen. Greg Steube's Senate Bill 188, La Rosa's bill is a parallel attempt to enact state legislation that prevents local governments from adopting new vacation rental regulations or enforcing regulations adopted after June 1, 2011.
When presenting his bill to the subcommittee members, La Rosa said "Treat vacation rentals the same as all other properties, whether it be a trash issue, a noise issue or too many cars parked in the street. Create that ordinance and restrict the activities not the use."
La Rosa said at least 25 Florida cities have enacted new vacation rental ordinances since 2014, when the state legislature gave back to the cities and counties some of the home rule authority lost when HB 883 was adopted in 2011.
La Rosa feels some of those local ordinances have gone too far in restricting property rights, and he cited as an example the city of Miami Beach fining property owners $5,000 to $20,000 for violating local rental regulations, including those who rent their properties using Airbnb, HomeAway and Booking.com.
La Rosa mentioned a letter received from an Island resident who objects to special assessments being levied on vacation rental properties – something the cites of Anna Maria and Holmes Beach are pursuing.
The staff analysis included in the meeting packet mentioned Anna Maria's vacation rental ordinance and the Bert Harris claims filed in objection to its occupancy limits.
Representing Holmes Beach, lobbyist Cari Roth expressed opposition to the bill. She said the Holmes Beach Commission feels its regulations are a reasonable attempt to prevent problems that arise from the conflict of uses that exist between residences and rentals.
"They think they've worked it out and would like to keep the law the way it is," Roth said.
Rep. George Moraitis Jr. (R-Fort Lauderdale) said adoption of the bill would eliminate local governments' ability to address vacation rental concerns.
"There's a great outcry to do something," he said.
Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg) mentioned the number of different people that occupy a vacation rental home over the course of a year and the impact this can have on a neighborhood.
"Don't you think that fairly presents a different set of regulatory challenges than a permanent resident?" he said.
Armando Ibbara, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association, said La Rosa's bill would benefit billion dollar companies like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway, but would negatively impact hotels and residential communities.
Voicing a different concern, Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Sunrise) said the increase in vacation rentals is creating a shortage of affordable housing in certain locales.
Representing HomeAway, lobbyist Jennifer Green said large families and groups of friends often prefer to share a vacation rental home rather than stay in separate hotel rooms.
"Do you want to stifle tourism in Florida by picking one owner over another?" she said.
Representing the Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, lobbyist Lori Killinger echoed La Rosa's sentiments regarding the adoption and enforcement of local legislation that addresses noise, parking and other quality of life issues across the board.
"At the end of the day it's not the use, it's the people," she said.
Elected officials and residents
joe hendricks | SUN
Anna Maria residents Ruth Uecker (left) and Amy Tripp are
playing an active role in the ongoing opposition to proposed
vacation rental legislation.
ANNA MARIA – Mayor Dan Murphy traveled to Tallahassee on Sunday as part of the city of Anna Maria's continued efforts to defeat Senate Bill 188 and House Bill 425.
Lobbyist Chip Case arranged for Murphy to meet with some state senators on Monday who are members of the Regulated Industries Committee that was scheduled to discuss, debate and rule favorably or unfavorably on the vacation rental bill filed by State Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota).
Murphy also hoped to meet with some of the state representatives that serve on the Careers and Competition Subcommittee that will soon review and rule on HB 425, the companion bill filed by Rep. Mike La Rosa (R-St. Cloud).
If adopted by the state Legislature that is now in session, the ensuing law crated by the passage of both bills would prevent local governments from enacting new vacation rental regulations or enforcing any ordinances and regulations enacted after June 1, 2011
A united front
Murphy is by no means going it alone in his attempts to derail the vacation rental bills. Commissioner Nancy Yetter contacted several elected officials around the state and asked them to join the city of Anna Maria in hiring a lobbyist. She also encouraged them to engage their citizens in communication campaigns that express their opposition to the vacation rental bills.
Commissioner Carol Carter has been distributing a newsletter to Island residents as a means of keeping them abreast of the ongoing efforts to defeat the bills.
Anna Maria resident Ruth Uecker assisted Yetter in reaching out to the other cities, and last week she appeared before the Bradenton Beach commissioners and encouraged them to urge their constituents to join in the fight.
She provided the commissioners with 20 pages of supporting documents that included contact information for state legislators, sample letters and newspaper editorials and articles.
"We in Anna Maria and Holmes Beach have embarked on rather strenuous letter writing, e-mail and phone call activities to notify the legislators that are involved with these bills that we do not want to lose our home rule," Uecker told the Bradenton Beach commissioners.
"Please write these letters. An e-mail is effective, a phone call is effective, but a letter is a piece of paper that they have to put on their desk and they can't make it go away or delete it," she added.
The contact information Uecker provided is already posted at the city of Anna Maria's website (www.cityofannamaria.com), and Uecker encouraged Bradenton Beach officials to do the same.
Petition to Tallahassee
Anna Maria resident Amy Tripp created an online petition as part of her opposition activities. When the legislative session began on March 7, she e-mailed a copy of the petition that contained more than 500 signatures to several key legislators and committee members.
Tripp also included a letter that addressed the petition and expressed her views on the need for the continued local regulation of vacation rentals.
"Residents and property owners across the state are demanding that all local municipalities throughout the state retain the right of home rule. It is the belief of these petitioners that residents and citizens in the community who are closest to its issues have the best understanding of what is needed to keep the community whole, healthy, balanced and working," Tripp said in her e-mail.
Owner asks city to classify property
Kristin Swain | Sun
Attorney Scott Rudacille takes a step back March 14
while Norfolk Southern Railroad representative
Josh Raglan addresses commissioners.
HOLMES BEACH — The owner of a unique Holmes Beach property is seeking the city's help to classify it.
While attempting to sell the property at 105 White Avenue, the owner, Norfolk Southern Railroad, ran into a snag.
The property, commonly known as the Lay-By, sits on 1.96 acres of beachfront property with 14 units in the R-1 zoning district, which only allows single family structures. The property was erected in 1963 and received a special exception from the sitting commission at the time because it was only used as a private retreat for employees of the railroad.
With the property listed for sale at $10.9 million and the sunset for grandfathered weekly rentals in the R-1 district drawing near, the company employed local attorney Scott Rudacille to ask city commissioners March 14 exactly what could be done with the property going forward.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to allow the property to continue operating as-is until the property is sold. However, they also decided the new owners of the property would need to appeal to the commission to change the use, other than to develop single-family homes on the property.
Chair Judy Titsworth said she would love to see the property remain in the hands of a corporation to be used privately as a perk for employees.
"I don't feel like it's a rental," she said. "It never has been."
City attorney Patricia Petruff said units on the property are not leased to third parties. If the property is sold and the existing structures torn down, Petruff said she and city planner Bill Brisson estimate that up to five single family homes could be built on the property.
"I do not want to lose the Lay-By," Commissioner Carol Soustek said. "It's an asset to this island."
Commissioners asked Petruff to work on the rewording of the approved usage agreement provided by the railroad company to ensure any new owner would know the property could not be used as a motel or for other short-term rental uses. Petruff agreed to bring the document back before commissioners at a work session.
Traffic study costs mount
BRADENTON BEACH — A contract hasn't been signed yet, but the cost of a proposed traffic study is mounting.
During the March 13 Island Transportation Planning Organization meeting, held at Bradenton Beach City Hall, Florida Department of Transportation representative Jesten Abraham said the cost of the proposed barrier island traffic study is growing.
While early cost estimates for the study came in at about $670,000, as the DOT begins contract negotiations with Stantec, the contractor selected during a bid process for the job, the cost is now estimated somewhere near $945,000 plus additional fees for filler contractors used to gather data while negotiations are coming to a close.
"It was controversial when it was $650,000," Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said. "This is taxpayer money. It's not free. This is a 50 percent increase. That's almost unconscionable."
Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization representative Dave Hutchinson had a different take on the increase, saying part of the additional cost could be additions to the scope of work.
"I think spending more state money to address issues in our area is a positive," Hutchinson said, adding the study could lead to the completion of more projects in the area which would be beneficial to residents. He also said the finalized scope of work was still under negotiation with Stantec and not yet available for the island mayors to review.
"So we're getting a $1 million study, and we don't know the scope?" Murphy asked.
Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon said he is concerned the study won't address issues particular to the barrier islands during high tourist season.
Abraham said the finalized scope of work will be distributed to the mayors as soon as it is available and that FDOT has pulled from its roster of filler contractors to begin collecting valuable data during this year's high season.
"We don't want to wait for next year to begin the study," he said.
Legislative priorities established
JOE HENDRICKS | SUN
City Attorney Ricinda Perry, Vice Mayor John Chappie and
Commissioner Ralph Cole discuss the potential implications of
two bills pertaining to Community Redevelopment Agencies.
BRADENTON BEACH – Based on suggestions presented by Vice Mayor John Chappie, the city commission has provided its newly hired lobbying firm with a list of proposed state legislation that it collectively wishes to oppose or support.
At the top of the list is commission opposition to a pair of vacation rental bills, Senate Bill 188 and House Bill 425, that would eliminate the city's ability to regulate vacation rentals. The commission has also asked its lobbying firm to express support for HB 6003, a bill that would allow local governments to prohibit vacation rentals – although City Attorney Ricinda Perry acknowledged during last week's commission meeting that it is highly unlikely that the current state legislature would support that bill.
Two bills that would restrict, prohibit or eliminate Community Redevelopment Agencies (CRA), HB 13 and SB 1770, were also cited as top legislative priorities to be lobbied against. Among other things, the house bill states that existing CRAs would not be allowed to initiate new CRA projects or issue new debt after Oct. 1.
When discussing these bills at the March 16 commission meeting, Perry said it was imperative for the CRA members and the city commission to adopt an updated CRA plan as soon as possible in case any new CRA-related legislation is adopted during the legislative session that will end in May.
Perry said the CRA plan that will expire in 2022 needs to be extended for another 20 years at the very least, and, if possible, to expand the CRA boundaries to include the navigable waters south of the Historic Bridge Street Pier and come to agreement on the list of previously discussed future projects that would be funded by the CRA.
CRA chair and City Commissioner Ralph Cole said the adoption of the proposed CRA bills would be "catastrophic" regarding the agency's ability to fund future projects, improvements and additional policing actions for the CRA district that encompasses all properties located between the Cortez Bridge and the Fifth Street South.
The Bradenton Beach CRA received approximately $330,000 in CRA funds from the various taxing authorities for the current fiscal year and the current fund balance is approximately $1.6 million, with more than $400,000 already budgeted for CRA projects, city staff time and additional police patrols.
Later in the week, a special CRA meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, March 22. The agenda for the special meeting calls for a final review of the proposed CRA projects. It also calls for an updated CRA plan to be approved and submitted to the Planning and Zoning Board, the City Commission and the associated taxing authorities for their review.
Later in the week, while serving in her new role as liaison between the commission and the lobbying firm headed by Dave Ramba, Perry sent commissioners an e-mail that said SB 1170 would be reviewed by the Senate's Community Affairs Committee on Wednesday, March 22, at 1:30 p.m. This will be the first committee review of the Senate bill.
The commission also opposes HB 17, a bill that would essentially strip local governments of the ability to impose new business regulations; and SB 330, which would cap annual business tax receipt license fees at $25.
The commission opposes SB 596 and HB 687, bills that would bar local governments from prohibiting or regulating the placement of micro wireless cell phone transmission equipment in municipal right of ways.
The commission supports SB 1590, a bill that would appropriate $50 million a year for beach renourishment projects; and the commission supports SB 80, a bill that would allow judges to determine whether attorney fees are awarded in association with public records lawsuits.
Big changes take effect at Ugly Grouper
MAGGIE FIELD | Sun
A massive new sculpture of a grouper has been added
to the Ugly Grouper courtyard. Here it towers over
Laura Hurst, Tori Hurst, Heather Rappold and
canine friend Havana Yatros.
The owners of The Ugly Grouper are following through on a plan to bring major changes to the restaurant.
One of those major changes recently implemented is a full bar. The Ugly Grouper recently obtained a liquor license, allowing staff to sell hard liquor in addition to the previously licensed beer and wine sales.
Due to state regulations, only limited numbers of liquor licenses are released by the Florida Division of Alcohol, Beverages and Tobacco, making it difficult to obtain one except through resale from another business owner.
One of the more visual changes to the property is the addition of a large metal grouper statue. The grouper towers more than 10 feet over diners and features large glowing eyes to make it visible at night.
Tropical landscaping also is being installed around the property.
The overall plan presented to city commissioners by project manager Bob Dwyer also included a redesigned stage area to help direct sound away from neighboring properties.
The Ugly Grouper is at 5704 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach.