EAST COUNTY — As Rex Jensen looks over an aerial map of Lakewood Ranch’s boundaries, he points to two vertical fuchsia lines and a yellow square.
The symbols mark future roadway connections — ones that will connect Lakewood Ranch with the surrounding area and largely fill in a road network grid that, to date, doesn’t exist east of Interstate 75 and south of the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park in Sarasota County.
The connections are a critical part of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s plan to develop its roughly 5,000-home, 5,500-acre Villages of Lakewood Ranch South project.
In the coming weeks, Sarasota and Manatee commissioners will pass resolutions that commit the counties to ensure the roadway improvements are made if the Villages project is built.
The commitment is part of the counties’ deal with the Florida Department of Transportation to expedite improvements to the intersection of I-75 and University Parkway to ease traffic surrounding the intersection.
In that deal, FDOT will expedite the project and suspend its plans to improve the intersections of University Parkway with Market Street and Cattlemen Road — but only if the counties agree to create north-south connectors if SMR develops the Villages.
“The Villages is not the cause of traffic problems along University Parkway,” said Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. “We are the opportunity to fix some of them. We are an opportunity to provide other thoroughfares.”
Those north-south connector improvements include extending Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard south to Fruitville Road.
In addition, to offset existing development impacts, SMR has committed $7.5 million toward other improvements, likely a flyover across Interstate 75 west to Cattlemen Road, or the extension of Iona Road south to Bee Ridge Road.
These connections have long been a part of Sarasota’s long-term transportation plan, but they weren’t considered when FDOT first proposed a diverging diamond interchange concept for the intersection of University Parkway and Interstate 75 — or the improvements to the University Parkway intersections with Market Street and Cattlemen Road.
A delegation of Sarasota and Manatee county officials met with FDOT leaders March 6, and convinced them the Market Street and Cattlemen improvements are not needed if SMR’s improvements are built.
But when — and if — SMR will begin work on Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard depends on what happens in May, when Sarasota County commissioners consider an application to change the development of regional impact and a companion zoning ordinance for the Villages.
“We’re implementing what we agreed to in October,” SMR’s Vice President of Strategic Affairs Todd Pokrywa said, citing a meeting at which Sarasota commissioners agreed to let SMR start work on homesites in the Villages before planned roadways are finished — a deviation from prior timing requirements.
Sarasota County engineer Jim Harriott said the county is committed to the road improvements, regardless of whether SMR builds the Villages, but the build-out of the multiuse project will dictate the timing. The county, he said, currently does not have funding for the roadways, which are required to be built by SMR under development approvals. Additionally, if the Villages is not developed, it would lessen the immediate need for road improvements because there would be no associated increase in traffic.
“I don’t see it as locking the county in to take responsibility for those improvements,” he said of the resolutions being considered by Sarasota County. “I see it as requiring they get done. There’s a commitment from FDOT and the county that came out of that Tallahassee meeting that the interchange improvements need to be accelerated and these other improvements need to get done.”
Jensen said SMR is committed to finding solutions for the traffic problem along University Parkway, but he cannot commit funding to the future roadway connections unless he knows he will be able to build the entire Villages project.
In the meantime, he will continue to show support for improvements to the I-75 interchange. He is creating a Lakewood Ranch resident group to foster public support for the concept.
Jensen said individuals interested in participating can contact him at 755-6574.
Behind the deal
Florida House District 73 Rep. Greg Steube said constituents told him they were leaving Lakewood Ranch or would not move into Lakewood Ranch because of traffic at the intersection of University Parkway and Interstate 75.
That fact, combined with inconsistent responses from Sarasota and Manatee county officials regarding the project, prompted Steube to organize a delegation of Manatee and Sarasota county officials to meet with lead Florida Department of Transportation officials March 6.
Steube said all parties are clear on “next steps” and no future meetings should be required.
Sarasota County officials were set to review a joint resolution about the interchange as early as Wednesday, but no dates had been finalized as of press time Tuesday.
Manatee County, whose officials will consider a similar resolution, has not yet set an adoption date for it.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].