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Manatee County veteran’s housing project left in limbo

Written by on Thursday, August 10, 2023

At a recent County Commission meeting, a complex deal haggled out to get hundreds of affordable apartments built for a vulnerable group of people hit a snag.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: August 9, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: Construction of affordable housing is moving faster in Manatee County than in neighboring Sarasota County. But there are limits in the more no-nonsense Manatee County as well. Example: at a County Commission meeting yesterday, a complex deal haggled out to get hundreds of affordable apartments built for a vulnerable group of people hit a snag. The WSLR News team is following that story.

All five Manatee County Commissioners repeated again and again, they really want to help veterans. All of them profess to be fans of affordable housing. But somehow, that big veterans housing project still ended up in limbo. It was a hard fought, two-hour battle yesterday during the Manatee County Commission meeting over a resolution to give a large chunk of county-owned land to a nonprofit that wants to build at least 120 affordable homes for veterans in West Bradenton, off Cortez Road.

So, what’s it all about? The county utilities company is planning to move its headquarters from its current location at 4410 66th Street, west of Cortez Road, and that’s turning that property into excess land. Somehow, two years ago, a New York City-based charity that builds veteran’s housing projects around the country got wind of that.

The Stephen Siller Tunnels to Towers Foundation approached Manatee County with a proposal to build a transitional housing complex with wraparound social services for homeless veterans and those in danger of becoming homeless. The location is ideal, a foundation vice president said, between two major intersections. There’s transit and there’s nearby retail and restaurants.

At the end of yesterday’s meeting, the foundation’s lawyers said, in return for the land, it would commit to building between 120 and 170 half-dwelling units, plus a minimum of 120 permanent units, most of which would rent at rates 80% of area median income and below.

Three commissioners at the forefront, Jason Bearden, and Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge raised concerns about the project: too big, not enough need here, too many non-locals, and then there are the next elections and neighbors who don’t want this next door. And these neighbors happen to be constituents. Here’s how Van Ostenbridge explained why he slammed the brakes.

Kevin Van Ostenbridge: My concern is for the residents of our districts, right. My concern is for the neighborhood, the businesses and the surrounding area. We’re not building a Neal community here. Okay, let’s be straight up and quit pussyfooting around the issue. Right? We’re doing a homeless transition site. That’s what we’re building. We’re not taking in rich boomers from up north, from the Midwest and bringing them down, putting them in this location.

These are good people who served our country, I respect them. They’re in this situation because their lives are quite problematic. And we’re down to 126, we started out at 560 some odd people that we’re going to just throw into this neighborhood in my district. And what are the what are the potential impacts for—and not not all of these folks are from here either. It’s going to become a magnet, we’re gonna start bringing in and recruiting people from all over the eastern seaboard to come down here.

And I want to help people, I want to help veterans. We don’t have nearly enough veterans in Manatee County to fill this thing up. Nowhere near that, we’ve only got 150—how many is it? 60 or 70 in Manatee County. And how many of them—oftentimes veterans are living in the mangroves for a reason. They don’t want to be part of society. It’s a choice. There are a lot of mental health issues here.

I don’t think I’m out on a skinny limb to foresee issues where folks go off of their medication because they’re troubled and they got, you know, that’s how they end up in this situation and we want to help them and keep helping them, but somebody goes off their medication, or perhaps somebody falls off the wagon and some sort of drug use starts back up. These are fragile people. We want to help them, 100%.

But if the process over here is that, if we bring you in from Maryland and you fall off the wagon, that we’re going to open up the front gate and we’re going to toss you out in District 3. I got like 500 people there. How else is this is going to happen? Right? I mean, this is what I’m trying to protect my residents, my district, and my community and my county from.

Host: Long story short, Commissioner George Kruse, the most passionate proponent of the project, ended up at the losing end of the vote. You can’t blame him for not trying: he scolded his peers, he changed his motion, he made the lawyers huddle to change the language of the land conveyance agreement, but to no avail.

Chair Kevin Van Ostenridge sent everyone to lunch break, and somehow, two commissioner’s chairs were empty after that.

Kruse’s motion failed to get a second and a competing motion to postpone the vote won the day. Before giving the land away, the commissioners want to get additional guarantees and want to hear what their constituents have to say about this in town halls.

Kruse accused his colleagues of using double standards, one for the big developers like Neal communities and land in the rural east, and another one for nonprofits and veterans.

George Kruse: We’re reusing future concerns for current decisions. I understand it’s county land, so it’s not exactly the same, but a few things. One, this is a conveyance. Like, we have for-profit developers all day every day, probably right now, one of them is sitting in some Attorney’s Office, buying a big chunk of land out east someplace. We’re not running over there saying, “You can’t sign that deed and buy that land until you have a neighborhood meeting and explain what you’re doing.” They’re buying the land, and then it’s—the onus is on Tunnel to Towers now to come back to us, the same way as every other development, and present that development, whether it’s 120 units, it’s 500 and something units whether it’s half-dwelling, whether it’s full dwelling. They have to come through the same process with us to move this thing forward.

We’re going to have a an opportunity to have real discussions about this. And they’re going to have the opportunity—although, based on how this board in this county works, not the obligation to—have a neighborhood meeting, since we don’t require neighborhood meetings in this county. So to say, “We haven’t had a neighborhood meeting, so we can’t approve this,” we don’t require anybody in this town to have a neighborhood meeting.

People are approving thousands and thousands of units on small little parcels of [agriculture] land. And there again, we chose not to have a meeting, or we did it on Zoom for 15 minutes and there was technical issues so we shut it down. But now we’re going to hold them to not having a neighborhood meeting prior to even acquiring a property? They can’t go through the effort of putting together the full site plan and the costs and the expense until they have assurance that those expenses could potentially result in a future development for the good of the veterans of Manatee County, and by extension, the U.S. as a whole.

Because to say, “Well, it’s not just Manatee. What if a veteran who enlisted and served our country defending our freedom happens to live in Sarasota? It’s not fair that we’re helping them have housing.” Like, that’s not how this works.

This, in my mind, is a good opportunity for us to do what we promised the citizens we were going to do. Here’s an opportunity for effectively $6 million to move utilities out who was already planning on moving out, that was the whole impetus of the Lena Road purchase, which is why utilities put up 50% of the money. So this is just doing what we were already going to do, effectively creating surplus land, and for the tune of $6 million, we’re getting more units with better wraparound services being handled by private nonprofits as opposed to the government to provide services that we promised our homeless veterans, and we promised our legislators we were going to provide.

If we don’t want to do this, that’s the discretion of the board. But we’ve promised everybody we’re going to do something.

Host: One neighbor already gave a taste of what is ahead at the town halls by claiming his neighborhood is drug infested. Putting veterans into this area would be a disservice, he told the commissioners.

When the commissioners will vote on the land conveyance is not clear after the postponement yesterday. Stay tuned.

This was Johannes Werner for WSLR News.


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