Bernath Drive residents ask Santa Rosa County for help fixing bridge

Article Courtesy of The Pensacola News Journal

By Anne Delaney

Published October 3, 2018

A new group of leaders in a Milton homeowners association is looking for assistance from Santa Rosa County to secure emergency service access to the neighborhood in the Avalon Beach area.

The privately owned bridge serving the Bernath Place Homeowners Association has been declared structurally deficient, leaving the residents without access to firetrucks.

Firetrucks cannot safely cross the bridge on Seneca Trail to reach homes on Bernath and McMillan Creek drives, and the bridge is the only way in and out of the otherwise landlocked neighborhood located east of Mulat Road.

In an appearance before the Santa Rosa County Commissioners last week, three new board members of the Bernath Place HOA told the commissioners that a Tampa-based bridge inspection firm issued a report the day before recommending that the bridge be shut down.

County Administrator Dan Schebler told HOA representatives Elise Teague, Carrie Helm and Valerie Owens that the county would figure out a way to help the Bernath Place residents.

County spokeswoman Brandi Whitehurst said Friday morning that an exact plan for that assistance remains to be mapped out.

"We're going to work with them on solving the problem," Whitehurst said. "I don't know what that entails."

The Bernath Place area residents will pay for a new bridge, Whitehurst said, and that financing will likely come by creating a Municipal Service Benefit Unit, or MSBU, which is an assessment on property taxes for certain services such as road paving, sewer lines, street lighting, speed humps and fire protection.

The county recently established all upcoming MSBUs so the Bernath area residents will have to wait until January to begin the eight-month process for setting up an MSBU, with tax assessments that will appear on bills in 2019, according to Santa Rosa County Budget Director Jayne Bell.

"For any immediate work that needs to be done, we would help them, but come January, we'll work with them to establish an MSBU to have the bridge replaced," Bell said.

Bell said the residents will have to come up with cost estimates for the bridge to start the process of establishing an MSBU. With county assistance, the residents will then have to collect signatures from at least two-thirds of the property owners in the area affected by the proposed MSBU.

Whitehurst said though the bridge is privately owned, the county views the matter as a "public safety concern."

"We have to help our citizens," Whitehurst said. "We can't have people in neighborhoods who can't receive emergency services."

Doing a minimal amount of repairs on the bridge would cost between $30,000 and $70,000, Helm, the HOA assistant treasurer, told the commissioners. But even that work would still not restore the small span to a load rating high enough to accommodate emergency vehicles, garbage trucks or delivery service vehicles.

The planned work would make the bridge safe for vehicles to a minimum of 4 tons, well below the 5 to 7 tons needed for EMS vehicles, 6 tons for garbage trucks and 5 tons for delivery service vehicles.

"Apart from residential vehicles, once we get those repairs done, we still have a number of services, the health and safety service vehicles that are restricted to our community because of the bridge," Helm said.

New Bernath Place HOA President Elise Teague told the commissioners that the HOA arranged with CSX Transportation for emergency vehicles to have access to the neighborhood by crossing the railroad tracks that run along McMillan Road, to the northwest of the subdivision.

Teague said CSX will not allow the residents to cross the railroad tracks while the bridge is under construction. The cost of the emergency access only expansion is estimated to run well over $100,000, Teague said.

"We don't have the money," she said. "We need the money."

Commissioner Bob Cole, chair of the county board, said the county would add the CSX issue to its list of items to resolve.

"Let's add that to the whole package," Cole said. "You can't spend four months bivouacked outside your homes. Or on an island. Let's hope the county has more leverage with CSX than individuals do."

In the spring, the Avalon Beach Fire Rescue District sent a letter to the Bernath Place HOA advising them that the privately owned bridge leading to the neighborhood was structurally deficient and the department would no longer be able to send certain vehicles to the area.

Teague said the lack of maintenance on the bridge falls on the shoulders of the previous board, stretching back to more than a decade. She said the most significant defects with the bridge are underneath the span with bent caps, pilings and stringers.

"The latter two are woefully neglected," Teague told the commissioners. "We had additional funds in our MSBU, and so you understand, the (HOA) board never communicated to the community any issues wrong with the bridge. I have not found any communication since the repairs with the MSBU that were completed in 2010."

Teague added that the bridge should have been replaced following Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and from 2011 to 2015, money allocated from MSBU funds for bridge repairs instead went to the community's drainage problems.

"I just want to give you an idea of the situation of the community not knowing what's going on," Teague said. "We realize this is going to be long process."