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‘Home Rule!’ becomes a battle cry in Manatee County

Written by on Thursday, May 2, 2024

As county and state try to disband island towns, upset locals are mobilizing at a rally this Saturday.


By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: May 1, 2024

Host: Last year in Siesta Key, efforts backed by the vast majority of island residents to create their own town got the cold shoulder in Tallahassee. Now, 20 miles due north on Anna Maria Island, state legislators are working with Manatee County officials to actually disband not one, but three towns. Those towns are Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, and Bradenton Beach. This comes as the Florida legislature has produced dozens of laws blocking local policies and ordinances on issues ranging from what to build where, tree protections, vacation rental regulations, police oversight, living wages, and renewable-energy goals, to name just a few. But all that is now producing backlash, particularly on the islands. The rallying cry of the opposition: Save Florida Home Rule!

Johannes Werner: Anna Maria resident Barbara Ehren is one of the co-founders of Save Florida Home Rule, a grassroots group recently started to “stand up against the Legislature, which is trying to assume power over our Anna Maria island cities”.

Barbara Ehren: What our fear is, is that any action like that, were they mess with our charters, our city charters, would likely involve new zoning ordinances which would perhaps – and maybe this is the intent all along – for developers to be able to come in and build high-rises. That is what our suspicion is. And that is what we want to prevent. We want to keep our island cities as they are. We don’t want them consolidated because each of the three of them has its own identity. And we like each of them. They’re unique, and we want to keep them that way, and we certainly don’t want to come under Bradenton or Manatee County.

JW: It all started with a parking garage project in Holmes Beach. The opposition to the garage was led by the mayors and commissioners of the three towns. Next thing you know, local politicians went for complete knockout. Two Manatee County state representatives, Will Robinson and Jim Boyd, commissioned a study to research the consolidation of the island cities, or disbanding them and putting them under either the City of Bradenton or Manatee County.

Two weeks ago, a protest titled Hands Across the Sand, tried to raise what Barbara Ehren calls “outcry over what’s happening behind the scenes”. April 13 on Manatee Beach, more than 200 people chanted “Keep our island cities!”

Barbara Ehren speaks to protesters at Manatee Beach April 13. Photo: Robert Anderson/Anna Maria Islander

BE: We were heartened that so many people came out to demonstrate, knowing that a lot of our snowbirds who also care about this issue are already back to their other locations.

JW: Now, Save Home Rule is planning Part Two. This Saturday, May 4, 10 am, at the Holmes Beach City Field, there will be what Ehren calls an educational event. This is going to look beyond just a parking garage in Bradenton Beach, or even the disbanding of the three island towns. It’s about the constitutionally anchored principle of Home Rule, she says.

BE: You know, when a lot of people hear the term ‘Home Rule’ they don’t know what it means. Our Florida constitution actually guarantees municipalities Home Rule. But in the past three years alone, our state legislature has passed over 80 laws that preempt Home Rule. So they’re sort of chipping away at it and taking greater control over our municipalities. And we don’t think that’s a good idea at all. Because at the local level, you know what you need, the state doesn’t know what we need. We only started this in April, so we just we just have begun. But we absolutely know that the Home Rule issue is not a local Anna Maria Island-only issue. We know that, and we will be reaching out to other other cities in Florida because that’s that’s what it affects. I mean, all the preemption laws and what’s going on at the state level affects everybody in Florida. And so our posture is, it’s us now, it’s going to be you next.

JW: The garage fight that then evolved into a power play to take over the island was driven by Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, says Ehren.

BE: He’s our District 3 county commissioner, and he got into a dispute with the mayor of Holmes Beach over parking. And that actually yielded a law that was passed last year pre-empting Holmes Beach permitting process, in other words, going over Holmes Beach’s head and permitting the county to build a parking garage on Manatee Beach, which nobody on this island wants, and which really is not necessary. We have the parking we need.

We tried to get comment from Van Ostenbridge, who is running for re-election. He did not respond.

Van Ostenbridge has said the garage is much needed for landlocked county residents trying to enjoy the beach. He also says that the consolidation of the three towns will save taxpayer money, something he says he hears from island residents.

BE: They say that residents are complaining about taxes and they want the state to do something about it. That is not true. In all of the work I’ve been doing, I have not encountered one person – not one – who has said we need to consolidate the cities because I think it’ll save taxes. First of all, it wouldn’t do that.

JW: Diana Shoemaker, who seeks Van Ostenbridge’s Manatee County Commission District 3 seat, is running on a platform of local control. She is scheduled to be at the rally.

For details about the planned rally, go to the Save Florida Home Rule Facebook page.

Reporting from Anna Maria Island for WSLR News, this is Johannes Werner.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.