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History trumps density in Manatee County's Elwood Park

The 650-acre, 100-year-old neighborhood has fended off two developers over the past year.

Reverend Randall LaRoche and his wife Heidi attend a planning commission meeting on Aug. 10 with about 25 other Elwood Park residents. Heidi LaRoche came up with the idea for everyone to wear matching Elwood Park T-shirts when attending commission meetings. She makes the T-shirts, too.
Reverend Randall LaRoche and his wife Heidi attend a planning commission meeting on Aug. 10 with about 25 other Elwood Park residents. Heidi LaRoche came up with the idea for everyone to wear matching Elwood Park T-shirts when attending commission meetings. She makes the T-shirts, too.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer
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While many residents of Manatee County have had no luck getting commissioners to slow down or stop development in their neighborhoods, one small community seems to have found a winning formula.

Elwood Park residents dodged construction crews for a second time at the Aug. 24 land use meeting. Commissioners voted 6-1 to deny a proposal for the Townhomes at Westbridge, which would have been 220 townhomes on 22.9 acres. The planning commission voted it down 3-1 on Aug. 10.

Before that, residents fought a proposal for Jordan Creek at Manatee, 56 villas on 19 acres. The planning commission voted to deny the rezone request 4-1 last October. In February, the request was withdrawn by the applicant and went unheard by commissioners. 

Still, Elwood Park residents aren’t resting on their laurels. 

“I have a feeling that developers are going to continue to try to nip away at the edges of our development, and we’ll have to be back,” Elwood Park resident John Rachide said. “If they could do it in such a way that fits in, then we don’t have anything to complain about. But when you go into an old neighborhood, you have to have respect for what’s already there.”

Elwood Park is located in northeast Bradenton and is zoned A-1, Agricultural Suburban. The neighborhood consists of large home lots, farms and small businesses, where residents can enjoy the agricultural lifestyle of tending to horses, chickens and gardens.

Commissioner Ray Turner cast the only vote in favor of the Townhomes at Westbridge. Elwood Park’s district commissioner Amanda Ballard led the motion to deny the project, saying there are plenty of other areas in her district that would be appropriate for the project, but not Elwood Park.

“I’m absolutely committed to preserving this gem in our community. It’s small. It’s compact. As we develop, we have to preserve these small pockets that make us unique, that make Manatee County a special place to live,” Ballard said. “If we can’t preserve Elwood Park, then we’re doing our community a disservice. This is the type of place that people all over Manatee County can come and enjoy this way of life that’s almost like going back in time.”

History is big

Elwood Park’s history appears to be a major factor separating its residents from countless others that go up against developers and the commission to no avail. 

The Manatee Library Historical Digital Collection contains a history of the neighborhood, and 100 years ago, Elwood Park residents experienced the pop of Florida’s first real estate bubble. 

The over 1,500 acres were established in 1915 by J. Elwood Moore, a Sarasota banker. Three years later, the community had grown large enough to warrant building a road and a schoolhouse. 

In 1923, a developer from Orlando, Carl Haselton, bought up all the remaining lots and turned Elwood Park into the Lakewood Ranch of its time in only one year. It was the fastest growing development in the area and included plans for an amusement park and suspension bridge over the Braden River. 

Florida real estate was booming in the early 1920s, but by 1926, the market crashed throughout the state. Development in Elwood Park stopped, but the community remained. 

Elwood Park’s history and representation of “Old Florida” play a sentimental role. There’s public interest in preserving history. 

But there are other factors that shield Elwood Park from commercial development and rising densities. Such factors set its residents apart from those that, for example, live between farmland east of the Future Development Area Boundary.

“This is an actual neighborhood. This is not unplatted land,” Rachide said.

It also predates deed-restrictions. Residents don't have a homeowners association to rely on or guide them. They must look directly to land use codes and the Comprehensive Plan themselves.

There are also infrastructure issues to consider. The area is prone to flooding, and while the extension of 44th Avenue will upgrade travel for the area, the roads are old and outdated by today’s width standards. 

“I think it’s premature,” Commission George Kruse said of the Townhomes at Westbridge. “I think 44th doesn’t accomplish what you think it’s going to accomplish. I don’t think this is the right time or place.”

As far as commercial development, Ballard said there’s no need for it within Elwood Park because of the “significant commercial” located at the intersection of State Road 70 and 45th Avenue. 

The little community that could

Today, about 400 families live within the approximate 650 acres that remain as Elwood Park. The tight knit community researches, strategizes and problem solves together. They appear before commissioners like a fully briefed legal team with supporting documents to argue their case. 

Beforehand, key players discuss who will cover what to make sure every point is heard. They take time off work to attend meetings in double digits, wearing a uniform of blue T-shirts that read, “Elwood Park, the heart of Manatee County.” 

But residents are not just playing a game of whack-a-mole every time a new development pops up. Elwood Park residents are proactive. 

Once the Jordan Creek development fell apart, the local nursery, Ralph Taylor Nurseries, stepped in and bought the property from William Monroe Rowlett Academy for the Arts and Communication, Inc.

“They were taking other offers, so we were right there,” Operations Manager Janyel Taylor said. “There were two other developers (bidding), but Rowlette saw the value in us and our community.” 

That’s 19 acres residents don’t have to worry about anymore. The nursery will now use that land to fit the parcel’s current agricultural zoning. The Taylors plan to host field trips on the site, where school children can learn about plants and gardening. 

Taylor had her eye on a property across the street, too, a drainage pond with a half-acre of land attached. The county owns it, so she brought the idea of a community garden to Ballard. 

Her fellow commissioners were on board. The garden is now on track and under its $100,000 budget. It should be open within six months. 

The Elwood Park Community Garden will be open within the next six months and feature multiple planting areas, rain barrels, compost bins and more.

The latest push from residents is to get the county to grant Elwood Park an agricultural overlay. Ballard, once again, is leading the charge. She requested staff look into the feasibility of granting the overlay on Feb. 28 at a commission meeting. 

“They have remained a farming community since their inception about 100 years ago. People there want to continue that way of life,” Ballard said. “I think as the county grows, it’s important for our tourism industry and the feel of the county that we retain our heritage.”

Ballard used Cortez Village as an example of an effective overlay district that has preserved the fishing heritage of Manatee County. An overlay doesn't bar all development, but it adds additional regulations pertaining to the subject of the overlay. In Elwood Park, it would help preserve and promote agriculture. 

County staff is currently preparing surveys for residents. They have to confirm that the majority of residents are in agreement with the overlay.

“No one in our neighborhood is against development. We’re only trying to save our way of life,” Rachide said. “We want development to be built in Elwood Park. We just want them to be at the density that fits in with the houses around them.”



Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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