Manatee County Commission Denies Rezone for Controversial Circus in Oneco

Dawn Kitterman
BRADENTON — On Thursday, Manatee County Commissioners denied a rezone request by Cirque Italia for roughly 5.5 acres of land located in Oneco. The company had hoped to bring its performance circus to the area, but Oneco residents have been vocal in recent weeks, calling for the county to block the company’s plans for the site.

The company, most widely known for its "Paranormal Cirque" production, also produces two "water circus" shows. Cirque Italia's website describes its shows as high-energy acts swinging from ropes, flipping over trapezes, and zipping by on BMX bikes and roller skates—"pushing the boundaries of human ability." 

Cirque Italia requested rezoning of the acreage in order to build a 52,000-square-foot performance venue, eight multi-family units, and a 20,000-square-foot office space at the former site of the Oneco Glass Company at 1623 53rd Avenue East. That plan would also include a 53-foot-tall circus tent which would be erected only for a maximum of 40 days each year for performances. 

Last month, the Manatee County Planning Commissioners voted 4-3 to recommend that the BOCC approve the request. 

Scott Rudacille, an attorney who spoke on behalf of the company at Thursday’s land-use meeting, testified to the board that the proposed project was a "true infill and redevelopment" project as encouraged by the county’s comprehensive plan. Rudacille stated that while the requested zoning allows for medium-intensity recreational use—for the 40 days a year for performances on the site—the main component of the project is the redevelopment of a dilapidated commercial building with a new structure. 

Several area residents appeared at the meeting Thursday to give public comments before the board against the approval. Citizens expressed concerns over "compatibility" and the preservation of the culture of the community. 

The public also raised concerns about traffic and noise impacts such a project could present to the neighborhood. However, most were vehemently against the content of the company’s "Paranormal Cirque." 

Although the circus does not include live animals—something that is most commonly responsible for controversy and public outcry with circuses—the nature of the company’s shows was the most strongly expressed concern from the public on Thursday. 

On the company’s website, the adult-themed show is partly described as, "A crazy yet fun fusion between circus, theatre, and cabaret in perfect harmony with the evolution of a show that brings you back to when we dream ... and when we had nightmares and fantasies." 

The show is restricted by age, which is enforced by a valid photo ID with a birthdate. Attendees under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult, and no attendees under the age of 13 are permitted, the same restrictions that are placed on movies that receive an R rating from the MPAA. 

The company has hosted its "Paranormal Cirque" show near the Bradenton Area Convention Center and Riviera Dunes in Palmetto in recent years. In Thursday’s meeting, county staff stated that the City of Palmetto reported receiving no calls or complaints in relation to the company’s Palmetto location. 

"This is the equivalent of putting an X-rated movie theater in our backyard," Oneco resident Margi Nanney told commissioners. 

Nanney also detailed the many other reasons she and other area residents did not believe the project was compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. Nanny listed safety, traffic, noise, and private property easement as specific concerns, among other points she listed for the board.  

"If you pass this today," Nanney said, "you will forever change the face of our community." 

Bill Bailey, the senior pastor of Happy Gospel Church, agreed with other residents that traffic and compatibility of the project were valid concerns he also shared. But Bailey had more significant concern over the content of the performances that Cirque Italia produces. 

Bailey told the board that several churches, schools, and camps are in close proximity to the proposed site. He told the board the main reason for his public comments was to speak up against an R-rated circus coming to the neighborhood. 

"The paranormal circus is a horror show full of violence and gore," Bailey said. 

The county attorney cautioned commissioners that their considerations over the application could not be based upon the content of any shows that might be held at that site. Doing so would be a violation of the entity's First Amendment rights.

However, commissioners were clear in their comments that the basis of the denial was not due to the content of shows produced by the company. Rather, several commissioners found reasonable concerns about compatibility and proximity to private residences. 

Commissioner James Satcher stated his belief that the project would not "fit with the community." 

Commissioner George Kruse included in his statements acknowledgment of residents’ concern about content but explained that theaters in the area show R-rated movies. Kruse told the public he could not draw a difference between the two and would not want to dictate what movies a theater can or cannot show. Kruse stressed that his vote against the application was solely based on what he saw as its request for rezoning as compatibility issues with the surrounding community, traffic, and noise. 

Commissioner Misty Servia agreed with her colleagues.

"Rezoning this property to PDMU is intrusive to the neighborhood," Servia said. "Even 40 days of incompatibility is 40 days too many." 

Based on concerns over incompatibility, the board voted unanimously to deny the rezoning application in a 6-0 vote (Commissioner Carol Whitmore was absent). 

Near the end of the discussion, it was noted by county staff that Cirque Italia would be required to wait one year before they can reapply to rezone the property for any amended use.

Reader Comments
Lester Brown
JUN 06, 2022  •  Looks like the circus should head to Palmetto. Cheaper land, more amenable citizenry, and access to the Pinellas folks and the Interstate.
JUN 05, 2022  •  I consider churches to be "paranormal."