Like many Manatee County citizens, I don't tend to get excited when I hear about new development, especially when it's anywhere near the eco-sensitive coastline. Nonetheless, I'm not so naive as to think that it will cease to continue. That being said, I have to admit that the latest efforts have at least begun with one foot set in the right direction in terms of how such delicate matters might best be handled.
Maybe it's because local resident Whiting Preston wants to develop his property – a massive swath of Farmland in SW Manatee – in the most thoughtful manner possible, or maybe it's just because he's smart enough to learn from what happened when Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman tried to sneak a massive marina/hotel/residential/commercial property past Manatee County residents at nearby Long Bar Pointe. But either way, he's begun his process with the sort of efforts that I'd like to see become a model when it comes to land development.
Preston is planning more than 8,000 residences and another 4 million square feet of commercial space in what would be the biggest Manatee County development since Lakewood Ranch, on property that has been owned by his family's fruit company for over 50 years. Very little of the development is waterfront, so it would not seem to be as environmentally-complicated as Long Bar, which is intended to develop almost the entirety of Manatee County's remaining coastline on the Sarasota Bay.
Much of the 1,600 acres slated for development on Preston's property is currently being leased to tomato farmers, and while it would be nice to see that remain the case, it's simply not going to happen. Continued development around the area has made it less suitable, while a slightly-rejuvenated housing market has made the land too valuable, especially considering it was already designated for up to 8,600 residential units and 3.8 million square feet of commercial in the 2010 comp plan. Manatee Fruit already sold 110 acres of adjacent land to IMG for over $7 million in 2011. The Comprehensive plan designation is not an entitlement for all this development since any project must also meet the zoning requirements of Manatee County's Land Development Code, including such things as a realistic traffic plan.
On the bright side, such a development could help breathe new life into struggling areas of Manatee County, especially along Cortez and the south Tamiami corridor where retail and office operations have struggled in recent years and blight has begun to spread.
The project is in its infancy, with only meetings between county planning staff having occurred at this point. No plans have even been filed, so we're talking several years before breaking ground is even a possibility. That's exactly why the company's efforts to begin soliciting public input seem legitimate.
Manatee Fruit has established a website to inform the public of its intentions, while also welcoming their reactions. They've also said they plan to host public meetings and engage the nearby communities from early on, in an effort to move forward with as many stakeholders on board as possible.
Like I said, there's a long way to go and too much that can happen in the interim to get excited at this point, but the very different way the Preston's are initiating the process is at least a big change from what smart-growth advocates like myself are used to. Considering our recent experience in that arena, such change is a promising sign.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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