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Veterans to the exurbs?

Written by on Thursday, September 14, 2023

Manatee County commissioner creates confusion with tiny house proposal on cemetery.

By Dania Hefley

Original Air Date: Sept. 13, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: When a New York-based foundation proposed to invest $20 million in Manatee County to build affordable housing for veterans, in return for a county-owned piece of land in west Bradenton, it looked like a home run. But the project is turning into a base-to-base struggle, as at least two county commissioners continue to raise obstacles. WSLR News reporter Dania Hefley explains the latest twists and turns.

Dania Hefley: During yesterday’s commission meeting, the final item on the agenda was a discussion about affordable housing for veterans in Manatee County. Commissioner Jason Bearden, a veteran himself, surprised the public by presenting what he described as a great opportunity: A piece of land near Port Manatee that could be used for a veterans’ housing project. 

Bearden proposes to use 22 acres of land in an undeveloped area on Buckeye Road, 10 miles northeast of Palmetto, to piggyback with a cemetery project and build a tiny house community for veterans next to it.

Jason Bearden: Twenty-two acres right on Buckeye Road. A 20-minute drive to Bay Pines. Right up the road to amazing employment opportunities at the port. Right up the road from FedEx, which is another opportunity for employment. And it’s just an awesome, awesome piece of land.


He said tending to the cemetery would give meaning to the lives of the tiny house dwellers.

With his proposal, Bearden seems to be reacting to a proposal by Tunnel to Towers Foundation to build a transitional housing complex in West Bradenton, complete with wraparound social services for homeless veterans and those in danger of becoming homeless. 

Tunnel to Towers, a New York-based non-profit, is proposing to spend $20 million to build this, in return for a county-owned piece of land off West Cortez Road. The location is ideal, the non-profit argues, because it’s near retail and transit.

Staff-prepared map showing the location of the Buckeye Road land.

Both Bearden and Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge have raised concerns about that project in West Bradenton, claiming that neighbors were worried, that the county would lose control over the land, that the project was too big, that there was not enough need in this area, and that it could attract too many non-locals.  

During a town hall event in the district of the West Bradenton project requested by Van Ostenbridge, no one spoke against it.

Bearden’s proposal faces fundamental challenges: For one, from the location it’s 10 miles to Palmetto, the nearest urban area. Also, the property includes wetlands and is home to gopher tortoises. In Florida, these turtles and their burrows are protected under state law, which could cause delays in the project.

It’s unclear where the funding and the management for the project would be coming from. Commissioner Amanda Ballard asked Bearden how many homes could fit on the Buckeye Road site, whether there would be any kind of on- site management and wrap-around services, and how veterans would be selected. Commissioner Mike Rahn probed about funding. 

Bearden had few answers. He mentioned St. Vincent de Paul Society, which manages veteran programs in the region. And he cautioned that “we are very early in the process”.

Van Ostenbridge said his reservations about the Tunnel to Towers project would translate to Bearden’s proposal. He also said he is not a ‘no’ on the Tunnel to Towers project yet.  

Bearden proposed a motion to authorize staff to move forward with conceptual design on his project and with cost estimates, to bring back to the board for further direction. Bearden’s motion passed unanimously, including a ‘yes’ from Commissioner George Kruse, the main proponent on the commission for the Tunnel to Towers project. Kruse remained quiet throughout the discussion. 

Sue Maes, a passionate backer of the Tunnel to Towers project, was confused about Bearden’s proposal, and disappointed with the lack of advancement for the project in West Bradenton.

 Sue Maes: I don’t see … I’m not understanding. Why would we pay for all this when we have a stellar Tunnel to Towers project that will pay for brand new housing? They are going to pay for the security, the wraparound services. I think they probably reach out to other community agencies to help them with that. I don’t understand why. I mean, if you’re going to buy land like that, you gotta deal with the gopher turtles, you got all this stuff to go through. It’s going to be more of a delay. Are we going to move on with the Tunnels to Towers project? Is that a ‘no’? 

D.H.: This was Dania Hefley for WSLR News.


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