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Sunday Favorites: Southwest Florida's Last Land Grab

The 5,770 acre tract for sale in Sarasota County is the last of its kind.

NORTH PORT - Florida has long been the promised land for speculators, as developers and real estate magnates have helped to shape the state in both good and bad ways over the years. 

The urge by state leaders to populate Florida goes back even further: the Armed Occupation Act of of 1842 was responsible for populating southwest Florida, promising 160 acres for any man willing to bear arms for the state and defend their new homestead with their lives against attack from Native Americans.

Of course, things are much different now and for one to make history they simply have to have enough money - evidenced by a 5,770 acre tract of land in eastern North Port to be auctioned off Feb. 13 to the highest bidder.

The land, once eyed for a sprawling, high end subdivision called Isles of Athena, was supposed to feature thousands of homes, pools, golf courses and other amenities.

Instead, it has led a quiet, if not ideal, existence following the economic downturn, when the housing market collapsed and ruined thousands, if not millions of lives. The land looks much like it has for thousands of years; deer, wild turkey and hogs freely roam the property, which is dotted with streams, bass-stocked ponds and strands of oak hammocks.

The property will be auctioned off on Febuary 13 to the highest bidder.

According to William Bone, president of Gadsden, Alabama-based National Auction Group, the seven square mile property dubbed McCall Ranch is a rarity, a veritable "Last of the Mohicans" type of opportunity that exists nowhere else in South Florida.

It's the largest piece of privately owned land left in the southern half of a state still grappling with unchecked urban sprawl, and in some cases, communities like North Port who are still grappling with their identity.

While other properties of this size still exist in South Florida as parks and preserves, they too may not be safe from development. The Manatee County Planning and Zoning Board set a recent precedent when they voted in favor of rezoning a 6.9 acre-property on the eastern side of Terra Ceia Island. With one vote, the land, which is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), went from a conservation zone to a mixed use property. The parcel is adjacent to a preserve and considered a flood zone. 

Bone's company will be overseeing the February auction, which he describes as having the potential to be "quite an event," one that could draw as many varied interests such as developers, private investors or environmentalists.

It costs $200,000 just to register for the auction, Bone said, and the property has been listed for sale with various real estate agencies over the years. Most recently it was listed at $36 million, although appraisal information was unavailable.

The property, for the most part, remains untouched.

According to Bone, a property that size simply does not exist anymore, unless it's in the hands of federal or state agencies.

While it's doubtful that the land would be preserved by local legislators, Bone did say that it's possible an environmental group could snatch the land up in order to keep it in its pristine, natural condition.

But the land will likely become what so many others across the state have turned into, like the sprawling and epic Lakewood Ranch community in Manatee County, that spreads over nearly 31,000 acres and boasts 11,000 residents in 5,000 homes.

Lakewood Ranch was so successful, developers decided to create another sprawling residential development in northern Manatee County, dubbed "Lakewood Ranch Jr." by the Bradenton Herald editorial board.

The success rate of these types of developments is spotty at best, especially in a post-housing collapse world.

Just to the south of McCall Ranch, a 17,000 acre property called Babcock Ranch spans two counties and was envisioned by developer and former professional football player Syd Kitson as a green, futuristic community that was powered entirely with solar energy.

The development has started and stalled over the years, and even been infused with $40 million worth of public dollars. It was supposed to serve as both preserve and city, with free wireless internet that spanned the entire property, dozens of schools, light industry, manufacturing, shopping, dining, business parks and more than 8,000 homes.

The parcel is located in eastern North Port.

If a developer with deep pockets and a renewed sense of ambition thinks McCall Ranch is going to be the next great community in Southwest Florida, then it's got some competition to both the north and the south; that is, if Kitson ever breaks ground on Babcock, which is now scheduled for 2016.

The developer would also have to contend with the glut of vacant and foreclosed homes that pepper not only North Port but all of southern Sarasota County; so in addition to deep pockets, they would have a deep well of patience.

Lakewood Ranch took nearly 20 years to grow to 11,000 residents. So if McCall Ranch does one day become yet another planned community, it would likely take decades for it to flourish. Of course, as those years roll by, an entire generation of young Floridians will not have access to the land, not unless they want to buy it, and the chance to preserve these kinds of opportunities will lessen.

Is there a balance that can be found? Of course. But one way or the other history will be made on Feb. 13, as a final piece of Florida's heritage will be handed to the highest bidder.


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