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Proposal to raise bridge height stirs controversy in Hernando Beach

Clearance at the Companero Entra bridge is 5 feet at mean low water. A proposal adds 6 feet.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Clearance at the Companero Entra bridge is 5 feet at mean low water. A proposal adds 6 feet.

HERNANDO BEACH — Harry Kasavich believes that when people scope out a waterfront neighborhood for a home, it's their responsibility to make sure that the size of their boat is compatible — just as they would want to make sure their truck fits in the garage.

That's why the Hernando Beach South retiree is vocal in his opposition to a move by some of his neighbors, who own big boats, to build a new, higher bridge on Companero Entra and have everyone in the community foot the $2.36 million bill.

Ballots on the question should be arriving in property owners' mailboxes in the next few days.

Kasavich is voting no.

"Why would you dig up a perfectly good bridge?'' he asks.

Actually, there are several reasons, if you ask those who support the construction of a new bridge.

"This has been an ongoing issue for a long time,'' said Diane Overbeek, president of the Hernando Beach South Property Owners Association, which has not taken a stand on the contentious issue.

For anyone living in Hernando Beach South and the area to the north known as the middle beach — the two sections of the Hernando Beach community that have only indirect access to the Gulf of Mexico — a boat trip under the bridge is necessary to get to the open water.

"This bridge is so low … it's difficult to get under it,'' especially when the tide is high, Overbeek said.

In a flier handed out in the community, Jim Garrett, chairman of the community bridge committee, which is not affiliated with the homeowners group, urges property owners to vote "yes."

Previous attempts to build a higher bridge have never gotten this far, he mentions and goes on to say, "The only way we can get this done is to do it ourselves. If we think of the good of the community and not just ourselves we can do it.''

If 51 percent of property owners returning their ballots concur, and the County Commission approves, fees will be assessed on the owners' annual property tax bills through a municipal services benefits unit.

The county is estimating that, for those who choose to finance their fees over a 20-year period, the cost would be $221 per year. The one-time fee paid in full would be $2,493.

Jim Rice, a member of the bridge committee and the owner of a boat that would benefit from a higher bridge, said that is a small amount to pay when one presumes that, with a new bridge, property values will rise.

"If you keep your home for 10 years and you don't think your home will rise 1 percent a year, then don't vote for it,'' Rice said. "You've got to put this in perspective. It's very much become an emotional argument.''

Residents for and against have been going door to door, arguing their points. Fliers have gone out to board members of property owners group, and position papers have been posted in the community newsletter.

For Kasavich, there is just no upside.

"I don't want to see this bridge go in,'' he said. "There's no net gain to me.''

He also questions why his county commissioner, Chairman Wayne Dukes, is openly supporting the "yes" vote. He pointed to an impromptu boat parade on Saturday in which Dukes rode with Rice in a boat that declared "vote yes'' on the "new bridge'' in big banners and flags.

Dukes said he didn't expect that the bridge committee was going to tout his involvement with the issue. He said he supports the process of letting residents vote for the bridge. If they vote in favor of it, Dukes said, he would support the project. If they vote against it, he said, that shows there is insufficient support.

While he lives in Hernando Beach, Dukes won't vote because his portion of the community has direct gulf access and the bridge project doesn't affect him, other than that the bridge is on the street that he takes to get home.

The issue has generated plenty of questions in the various Hernando Beach neighborhoods, including confusion over who will have to pay.

The benefits unit that would be created to build the new bridge and raze the old one only affects those on the freshwater side of the land bridge and boat lift on the south end of Hernando Beach.

The land bridge, or dike, was ordered decades ago by state environmental regulators to keep freshwater and saltwater separate.

Residents whose homes are on freshwater must navigate through the community's canals to the boat lift if they want to get into the gulf. At the lift, they maneuver over the land bridge.

Once in the saltwater, they must go under the bridge on Companero Entra. The current clearance at the bridge is 5 feet at mean low water. The proposal for the new bridge would add 6 feet of clearance.

That would allow for both bigger boats to be based in neighborhoods that do not have direct gulf access and would mean less worry about the timing of trips out or back home, proponents say.

Residents have until June 4 to return their ballots.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Proposal to raise bridge height stirs controversy in Hernando Beach 04/22/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 5:31pm]
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