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Manatee County residents urge commissioners to unpause veterans housing project

Written by on Monday, August 21, 2023

County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge had put in limbo, citing neighbors’ concerns. But at a recent town hall, no one opposed the affordable housing project in West Bradenton.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: August 18, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: When he slammed the brakes on an affordable housing project for veterans in West Bradenton last week, Manatee County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge might have put himself in the hot seat. The WSLR News team was at one of the town halls Van Ostenbridge had asked for, supposedly to allow neighbors to air their concerns about the project. But the crowd in the district where the veterans housing project is supposed to be built did the exact opposite. They expressed outrage at the commissioners who put the project in limbo.

So here’s what it’s about. The county is planning to move its utility offices from an eight-acre property off West Cortez Road. That land is now the object of desire by a New York-based nonprofit, Tunnel to Towers, that builds homes for veterans and first responders across the nation. They’re currently building projects in Houston and – of all places – Beverly Hills, where they have ostensibly enjoyed the full support of the local authorities.

Not so in Bradenton, where Tunnel to Towers is offering to invest $20 million in a permanent housing project with up to 150 units, plus wraparound services. To make it happen, county staff structured a deal where they would give the land, worth an estimated $6 million, to the nonprofit. But that deal hit a snag at a County Commission meeting last week when Commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge and Jason Bearden raised concerns.

A motion by proponent George Kruse to vote on the transfer of that land failed for lack of a second. Instead, a Van Ostenbridge motion to organize a series of town hall events, allowing neighbors to express concerns, carried the day. On Wednesday night, the constituents of District 4, where the project is planned to be built, gave Commissioner Mike Rahn a hard time.

At his town hall at the South County Library Wednesday night, Rahn professed again and again his support for the veterans housing project. But one supporter, who says he had campaigned for him, confronted Rahn over his absence during a failed motion for the project at a county commission meeting last week. He showed a photo of Rahn’s empty commission chair, which led to a heated exchange.

Unnamed Citizen: In this snapshot, there are three seats missing. You, Bearden and Satcher. And George said, “failed for lack of a second.” It was not important enough for you to approve this project.

Mike Rahn: Well, if you look at it, first, this first motion I seconded. Hang on—

UC: [Overlapping] It was denied. That’s why we’re here.

MR: I’ve been telling you, at the point—I told the chair that I had to take care of something personal, I ran upstairs for 10 minutes, when I got back downstairs they had already had the vote. It was like, that fast. The chair knew where I was at. I can’t speak for where Bearden and Satcher were at. But the chair knew where I was at. I was upstairs in my office taking care of something personal. I had no idea the vote was going to come up that quick. If it would have been, I would have been down here and I would have seconded George’s vote, his motion right then like I did the first time with the 150 units.

It still would have failed, because we were not gonna have, we would not have had two more votes. We didn’t have the votes. And that’s why we’re going through this process now for another six weeks. I didn’t agree with six weeks, but we’re going through that process plan and the other board members voted.

UC: Was someone dying? That you had to be out—

MR: It’s personal reasons, I don’t think I need to explain my personal reason to you, I mean, I really don’t. [Crosstalk] I mean, Lynn knows me well enough to know that I am a man of my word, a man of my honor, I stand here today before you.

UC: [Unintelligible] You had another personal emergency when the Planning Commission came up, you weren’t down there for that vote either.

MR: It was the same—I came down right after it. I came down right after it.

UC: You get hired to vote on the agenda items. You took an oath, that’s what you have to do. We pay you 90 grand a year, we expect you to be at an official government meeting, voting on every agenda item, and you missed two that day.

Host: Not a single person in the packed room expressed opposition to the project. Van Ostenbridge is scheduled to host his own town hall for his district tomorrow morning at 9 am at the site of the project, which is currently home to the county utility offices. A Facebook post on the official Manatee County page advertised the event as a discussion on a “homeless shelter.” That triggered a storm of comments.

The commissioners gave themselves six weeks to figure out whether and how the county-owned land could be transferred to Tunnel to Towers.

This was Johannes Werner with WSLR News.


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