BRADENTON — Another of the county’s west Bradenton median improvement projects is raising questions among environmental advocates, members of the county’s Environmental Land and Acquisitions Committee (ELMAC), and the coordinator for the Scenic Manatee Advisory Committee.
In June, a separate median project was abandoned after members of the Palma Sola Scenic Highway CME (Corridor Management Entity) objected to the county’s proposed improvements to two medians along northwest Manatee Avenue.
In that instance, the county’s plans included the removal of existing landscaping planted within two Perico Island medians and replacing it with Alexander and Royal palm trees, sod perimeters, and installing a new irrigation system.
In a report by The Islander, Holmes Beach city engineer Sage Kamiya—who is a CME member—was noted as having emailed officials with his concerns about the county’s plan to remove the trees in the Perico Island medians.
“Removing what I understand are existing live oaks and sabal plans does not seem consistent with Palma Sola Committee preferences,” Kamiya wrote.
CME member Joshua Linney also sent an email to county officials expressing concern about the county’s plans to remove the trees.
Interim Director of Property Management Carmine DeMilio responded to the CME member emails, writing, “With all due respect, we are only attempting to beautify and enhance these medians.”
Van Ostenbridge responded on the email thread as well, writing, “These two medians are part of a countywide initiative that the entire BOCC has embraced. All of the medians on Manatee Avenue are to take on this new look.”
Directing his remarks to DeMilio who was cc-ed on the correspondence, Van Ostenbridge added, “Let’s not waste any additional time on discussion. Please move forward with the site work ASAP.”
Ultimately, however, the county did not move forward with the planned improvements.
According to The Islander, Van Ostenbridge announced that the county had decided to abandon the plan for improvements to the Perico Island medians in a June 2 statement to the publication. The Islander reportedly sought further details of the decision, but never received any follow-up comment from the commissioner.
Scenic Manatee Coordinator Ingrid McClellan — who is also Vice Chair of the Palma Sola Scenic Highway CME Committee — took note of Van Ostenbridge’s email response concerning the Perico Island medians, “All of the medians on Manatee Avenue are to take on this new look.”
As the Coordinator of Scenic Manatee, McClellan followed up with FDOT to request information about any additional median improvement plans along Manatee Avenue.
Speaking to TBT by phone, McClellan explained that the answers she found led her to an interlocal agreement with the City of Bradenton and landscape plans that showed more established median trees were slated for removal by the county.
Like the proposed Perico Island medians, the five additional Manatee Avenue medians the county had planned for improvement lie within Commissioner Van Ostenbridge's District 3.
During a September 12 BOCC regular meeting, commissioners approved the execution of an interlocal agreement between Manatee County and the City of Bradenton whereby the county would assume sole responsibility for the maintenance and landscaping of five medians along Manatee Avenue from 43rd Street West to 75th Street West.
The item appeared on the meeting’s consent agenda, number 37, Interlocal Agreement between the City of Bradenton and Manatee County, regarding Temporary Right-Of-Way Maintenance for S.R. 64 (from 75th Street West to 43rd Street West and from 75th Street West to the Palma Sola Causeway).
Though the item was brought forward on consent, Commissioner George Kruse requested the item be pulled from the consent agenda for questions of staff before the vote.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Kruse began. “The way I read this, the roads are owned by FDOT and maintained by the City of Bradenton, and this seems like an interlocal agreement for the county to take the responsibility and costs upon ourselves to maintain these medians.”
“What am I missing?” Kruse asked DeMilio who stood at the podium.
DeMilio confirmed Kruse’s understanding but clarified that the county would be assuming the maintenance and responsibility for the medians from the City of Bradenton—who currently had an agreement with FDOT to maintain the medians—but the interlocal agreement included that the city would incur the cost of the irrigation system that would be installed for the new landscaping.
DeMilio further added, “It will be minimal cost to install, we are looking at $6,000 per median.”
Despite DeMilio’s cost estimate, the supporting documents attached to the meeting agenda lacked any specific details, including a landscape plan, estimated initial cost to the county, estimated recurring costs, or an identified funding source.
DeMilio then presented photos from two of the five medians that he said showed the current state of the medians in question.
“As you can see, we’re better than this,” DeMilio said as he clicked through the slides seemingly implying that the City of Bradenton had poorly maintained the medians.
DeMilio also displayed a photo of a median the county had previously completed — which was also taken over by the county from the city — along the Palma Sola Causeway.
he example photo shown by DeMilio included royal palms, sod, and other ground shrubbery, Kruse questioned whether the cost could really only be $6,000. DeMilio confirmed, “Yes.”
With no further questions from commissioners and no public comment, Commissioner James Satcher motioned to approve the item. Commissioner Amanda Ballard seconded the motion, and the item passed unanimously.
Despite the lack of supporting documents on the September 12 agenda, McClellan was able to obtain the landscape design plan for the five medians through a public record request. The median landscape plans were dated several months prior to September but inexplicably not attached to the meeting agenda when the item went before the board.
Speaking by phone, McClellan told TBT that it was when she reviewed the landscape plans that she became concerned. Though she is the current coordinator for Scenic Manatee, and the Vice Chair of the Palma Sola Scenic Highway Committee, McClellan is also a former member of the county’s ELMAC Committee, the City of Bradenton’s Tree and Land Preservation Board, as well as the former Executive Director of Keep Manatee Beautiful.
McClellan said that it was while she was serving on the city’s tree and land preservation board and working with Keep Manatee Beautiful that the exact five medians along Manatee Avenue underwent improvements.
She decided to send an email.
On Oct. 30 — first addressed to Commissioners Satcher and Bearden and all members of the county’s ELMAC committee — McClellan wrote, “As the Scenic Manatee Coordinator and author of the grant proposals that funded the 2006 Median Landscaping in the SR 64 medians (Manatee Ave), I am providing these documents to you…”
The email continued, “The Plans are for Manatee County dollars to be used to remove 18 established trees (8 black olive Shady Lady, 8 Crape Myrtle, and 2 Paurotis Palm) in four medians between 75th Street West and 43rd Street West that do not require an irrigation system, and then replace them with 19 Royal Palms, 4 Alexander Palms, shrubs and groundcover that will require a maximum of four irrigation wells to be installed, and maintenance thereafter of palm frond pruning, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Doing so does not follow the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Principles attached.”
McClellan included with her email supporting attachments and information about inefficiencies of Royal Palms as median landscaping and risks of damage to vehicles due to the palm’s “self-pruning” and dropping 20-40 pound fronds from as high as 20-30 feet when fully grown.
“The trees were installed in 2006 using Bradenton Tree Funds, state grants, and private donations with coordination by the City of Bradenton’s Tree and Land Preservation Board to increase the City’s urban tree canopy,” McClellan's email explained before attaching an excerpt from a 2017 presentation she gave before the Bradenton City Council on the median projects.
McClellan told TBT that she did not receive a response from either Satcher or Bearden who serve as BOCC liaison and alternate liaison (respectively) to the ELMAC committee. McClellan also sent the same email to the other commissioners, including Van Ostenbridge, whose district the median project is planned for.
Commissioner Amanda Ballard thanked McClellan for sharing the history of the medians and for “sharing her perspective.” Ballard also said she would share the information provided by McClellan with the county’s “landscape staff.”
Commissioner Kruse wrote, “When it came up on consent I pulled it to ask why and at what cost. I was told it was something like $6,000 total. I doubt we’re removing landscaping and trees and putting in 19 royal palms for six grand.”
McClellan said she never heard back from any other commissioners.
Last week, McClellan took the concerns to the ELMAC committee in person. During the committee’s Nov. 6 meeting, she read from a letter written by ELMAC member and Certified Arborist, Terry McKamey.
“Concerning established trees that need minimal maintenance and do not require watering, it is still my opinion that we should keep established trees and not waste tax dollars to remove and replant," McKamey's letter included. “These trees have been paid for in previous plantings. This would fall under the term Green Wasting.”
McKamey was made aware of the county’s proposed median improvements through McClellan’s Oct. 30 email. He shared McClellan's concerns but was unable to attend the meeting in person due to illness.
Click through the photo gallery below to see photos of the five West Manatee Avenue medians as they appeared on Nov. 9. These images may be best viewed on a computer or tablet.
An ELMAC member discussion followed, and Randal Cooper offered his opinion based on the available information. Cooper stated that the county’s plan to remove established trees to replace them with higher maintenance trees that would require watering “sounds like a complete waste of tax dollars.”
Cooper proposed that ELMAC, which also serves as the county’s tree advisory board, should send a letter to commissioners stating that ELMAC advised against the median improvements as planned.
Another member questioned the projected cost of the improvements, and because no other information had been provided when the interlocal agreement for the medians was approved — to include an identified funding source — McClellan answered by repeating the answer given to Commissioner Kruse during the September 12 BOCC meeting, “$6,000 per median.”
“That would be impossible,” said McClellan of the estimate, “because planting 19 royal palms, the cost of one royal palm is over $2,000. That is besides the cost of removing the existing landscaping and established shady lady trees.”
"Is the county tree fund going to be paying to take out trees that the city tree fund paid to put in?" McClellan asked rhetorically. "What fund is this coming from, general revenue?"
Cooper said that other medians were more in need of attention and that it would make practical sense for the county to “go after those, and fix those up first.”
ELMAC member Carol Felts agreed with Cooper’s proposed letter to commissioners and made a motion which Cooper then seconded.
However, Commissioner Satcher — who was in attendance as the BOCC liaison — cautioned the committee against such an action.
“I don’t get a vote, but I do get a voice,” Satcher began. “And to me, the last thing you would want to do is get into the weeds this much on a project like this because the pictures I have seen of the medians and the times that I have driven by, it looks nice, first of all. I will say that it looks nice.
And then second of all, what does ELMAC have to gain from picking a fight with the commission and the decisions the commission has already made and is moving forward with? If you want to pick that fight, you can, it’s your decision, but I don’t know that it will get you the goals that we’re all here to work towards on a Monday night,” Satcher told the members.
Felts disagreed, arguing that ELMAC should speak up and offer their recommendations on plans that include additional use of water resources, the removal of established trees, and added taxpayer expense.
“We are trying to be fiscally conservative conservationists,” said Felts. “If we don’t speak up, who else is?”
Satcher responded that he felt the committee should be considering how “the vote is going to go next time if we start writing letters to the board that actually gets to decide whether or not to approve an expense (request) or not.”
After some further discussion, and considering the lack of information available about cost and funding, ELMAC members leaned toward gathering additional information before weighing in on the median project by letter.
Finding a lack of support for sending a letter to commissioners, Cooper withdrew his second, and Felts withdrew the original motion.
To listen to an audio recording of ELMAC members' discussion about the Manatee Avenue median improvements during the November 6, 2023, meeting, click the video below. To view a PDF draft version of the entire meeting minutes, click here.
McKamey told TBT, “As an arborist and lifelong resident and taxpayer, my opinion is that the removal of the previous plantings, including established trees, and the money required to do that work—and clearly for aesthetics—is wasteful.”
Both McKamey and McClellan told TBT that they hope the county might revise its plans before the trees are gutted. Both said they believe that improvements could be made to the medians without removing viable, established trees and without requiring water resources in the form of wells and irrigation systems.
"These medians could be improved with less waste and less expense to taxpayers," said McKamey.
The county has obtained the required permit from FDOT to begin the work. As of Thursday evening, one of the five medians had already been excavated in advance of improvements.