LAKEWOOD RANCH — More than three years after it was first approved, the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South project moved closer to getting off the ground with the Sarasota County Commission’s Oct. 9 ruling.
The County Commission unanimously approved an amendment to its contract with project developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch that allows it to begin residential construction on the 5,500-acre project before some roadway improvements have been completed.
Still, construction on the Villages project, the first village-style development ever approved under Sarasota County’s 2050 growth-management plan, won’t begin until SMR submits an application to amend the Development of Regional Impact.
That amendment will address outstanding issues that have prevented SMR from beginning work on the project.
“I won’t pop any champagne corks yet,” said Rex Jensen, president and CEO of SMR. “This doesn’t do much of anything. The transportation agreements are part of the process. Now, we have to resolve other impediments that have prevented this thing from getting going.”
SMR and other developers especially have problems with a fiscal neutrality rule — as part of the 2050 plan — that requires projects to periodically prove they fully pay for the public services they receive and do not burden existing taxpayers.
Jensen has said SMR won’t begin the project, which plans for 5,144 residential units and 390,000 square feet of commercial space, if he’s not sure he can finish it.
“Hopefully, this agreement gets this moving faster now,” said Sarasota Commissioner Joe Barbetta. “I’m very troubled that we won’t see a stick in the ground for a long, long time.”
The amendment agreed to at the commission meeting updates the construction schedule of already approved road projects related to the Villages and adds a proportionate share road project — where costs will be borne by SMR and the county.
In 2010, SMR committed to funding the following three improvements to mitigate project traffic:
• The continuation of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard as a four-lane roadway from its current ending at Communications Parkway to Fruitville Road;
• The continuation of Lorraine Road as a four-lane road from University Parkway to Fruitville Road;
• The construction of an east-west connector from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Lorraine Road.
The updated timeline allows for construction of homes to occur at the same time as work on the roads — with certain regulations.
Improvements to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard will have to be complete prior to approval of the 300th home unit.
Similarly, the extension of Lorraine Road, which will now amount to two lanes rather than four, has to be finished before development of the 2,033rd home.
As part of the existing Adequate Transportation Facilities Agreements with the county, SMR had to wait for road improvements to be fully constructed before any development could occur.
SMR has also pledged up to $7.5 million for a proportionate share-road project that gives the county one of two options: It can put the money toward an east-west connector overpass from the Villages over Interstate 75 and Cattlemen Road; or it can use it to build a two-lane Iona Road between Fruitville Road and Palmer Boulevard.
The county has to make that decision within the next three years.
Jensen said that should be plenty of time for a county government he has chided for operating slowly.
“I don’t believe this county is very responsive to deadlines,” Jensen said. “But I do think that’s changing.”
Terms of the transportation agreements won’t go into effect until the amended DRI is approved.
Todd Pokrywa, vice president of planning for SMR, says the developer plans to submit the amendment within a few months.
Interstate 75/Cattlemen Road overpass could impact ‘Diverging Diamond’ plan
If Sarasota County commissioners choose an east-west connector overpass from the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South over Interstate 75 and Cattlemen Road, it might provide an alternative — or help ease the costs — of a plan for the University Parkway interchange that has drawn critics.
The Florida Department of Transportation is proposing a new diverging-diamond-style configuration for the interchange at University Parkway and Interstate 75.
FDOT has said changing the interchange from a diamond design to a diverging-diamond construction would accommodate increased traffic from the Mall at University Town Center, opening in October 2014, and Nathan Benderson Park, which will host the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
Jonathan Paul, Sarasota County interim transportation planning director, said the overpass would cost $11 million to $15 million, considerably less than the still unfunded FDOT plan.
Sarasota County commissioners, who say their projected share for the interchange could total $25 million, said they will draft a memo to FDOT expressing their opposition to the interchange plans and documenting some alternatives.
“If we have to pony up some money, I’d much rather explore this than convert University Parkway into a freeway,” said Sarasota Commissioner Joe Barbetta.
Manatee and Sarasota officials are already expressing their concerns about the interchange, an estimated $49 million Florida Department of Transportation project that still doesn’t have funding for construction and that would also require additional roadway improvements paid for by the local governments.
Though FDOT will eventually use state or federal funds to pay for the new interchange, the project depends on improvements at the intersection of University Parkway and Cattlemen Road to help alleviate traffic.
“The idea of an overpass is a very good one,” said Charles Hines, a Sarasota County commissioner. “But we need more alternatives. We don’t have 20 years. We have to look at it now with the rowing event coming.”
The widening and reconstruction project, whose design would be complete by 2016, would take place from north of Fruitville Road to north of University Parkway, spanning 3.5 miles, and one mile from Cooper Creek Boulevard/Cattleman Road to Market Street/Lake Osprey Drive.
Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said Sarasota will have to assume some costs of improving the interchange.
“They can’t get away without improving the intersection at some level,” he said.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].