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County hears LWR resident concerns on development, pickleball courts

The "All Things Lakewood Ranch" Manatee County Commission meeting was set up to provide easy access to the government officials for Lakewood Ranch residents.

A fence surrounds the area that hosted pickleball courts at Lakewood Ranch Park. New courts are expected to be finished this summer.
A fence surrounds the area that hosted pickleball courts at Lakewood Ranch Park. New courts are expected to be finished this summer.
Photo by Jay Heater
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With approximately 100 people in the audience at the Lakewood Ranch High auditorium, Lakewood Ranch resident Carol Lucas walked up to a podium to address Manatee County commissioners.

It was May 18, a Saturday, which was a rare day for a Manatee County Commission meeting. However, the special session was arranged to give those residents in the Lakewood Ranch area easy access to commissioners in case their work schedule prevented them from attending the normally scheduled meetings in downtown Bradenton.

The meeting was titled "All Things Lakewood Ranch."

While much of the subject matter didn't follow the billing and amounted to a review of county accomplishments, many of those in attendance said they did, indeed, appreciate not having to drive to the Manatee County Administration Building for a meeting.

Lucas wanted to speak during the Citizens Comments section of the meeting to address the lack of public pickleball courts in the Lakewood Ranch area.

She was one of nine speakers who had an opportunity to address specific issues in Lakewood Ranch. Commissioner chair Mike Rahn told those in the audience they had to limit the amount of speakers due to time constraints.

Lucas told the commissioners that she had attended a similar 2018 meeting in Lakewood Ranch at the former Red Cross building in which county staff members outlined plans for public pickleball courts.

"Then nothing," Lucas said.

Lucas and Bob Haskin, who also spoke to commissioners during the public comment session, started the Lakewood Ranch Pickleball club and have been closely following the county's plans to build new courts at Lakewood Ranch Park along with a swimming/pickleball complex at the Premier North Park.

Concerned about 2024

The Premier North Park pickleball complex has been delayed as plans have changed and something that was planned to be open already is now scheduled to be finished in 2026.

Compounding the problem, the pickleball courts at Lakewood Ranch Park have been torn up during a replacement project.

"We have zero public pickleball courts," Lucas said. "We need the commissioners to hold the staff accountable for delivering on the plans."

Although Lucas has little confidence the commissioners will deliver on the 2026 date, she said that at least the commission meeting at Lakewood Ranch High provided the opportunity speak to the department heads so she could meet those responsible.

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge assured those interested in pickleball that the new complex would be delivered in 2026.

"But I'm concerned about 2024," Lucas said.

The Manatee County commissioners literally were on stage May 18 in the Lakewood Ranch High auditorium.
Photo by Jay Heater

Others in the crowd voiced similar viewpoints that, being seniors, they might not be around by the time Manatee County delivers on many of the amenities it promised to build at Premier Park North after purchasing the land from Schroeder-Manatee Ranch in 2017 and 2018.

A slide on future plans for the park included a baseball/softball complex, a recreational trail, and expanded parking. However, nothing was mentioned about the previously planned event lawn (pavilion), basketball court, skate park, volleyball courts, playgrounds or dog park.

"I want all the park amenities," Lucas said. "I want the amphitheater."

She noted the pickleball courts at Lakewood Ranch Park were "horrible" but that at least the players had something.

She said once the county dug those up to be replaced, "they didn't have the common courtesy or foresight to replace them (temporarily)."

She has been told the new courts at Lakewood Ranch Park will be done in August.

But she and Haskin told commissioners that lights should have been included when building new courts.

"They didn't budget for lights," she said. "How can you do that?"

Haskin added, "There's no lighting for people who want to play after work in the winter."

Resident comments

Other residents voiced complaints during the meeting as well but didn't have any opportunity to engage with commissioners. They had three minutes to cover their topic, and then commissioners (mostly Rahn) ran through their issues in rapid-fire succession, mostly indicating their comments would be considered at a later date.

One citizen said she thought the Lakewood Ranch area fell a bit short when it came to the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Another said the noise and speeding problems on University Parkway were making living along the road unbearable. A homeowner complained that approving the commercial development request coming up in front of the commission would have a negative impact on the Sapphire Point community. A Tara resident wanted to know what the county has planned for the 55 acres it purchased from developer Lake Lincoln in a 2023 settlement. A homeowner questioned the rising density being allowed along Lorraine Road and if the commissioners could limit that growth to help those neighbors "maintain their quality of life."

One resident asked whether the county had paid a price in terms of ranches and agriculture and whether the commissioners were willing to draw a line where they would say no to development. The commissioners were asked about help cleaning up after a hurricane as many residents continue to wait for FEMA funds. Traffic around the Central Park neighborhood is a concern once the 44th Avenue extension opens.

There was little time for commissioners to respond to any of the questions. Commissioners gave comments such as "We sit in the same traffic as you do," and "We are frustrated, too, with how slow government moves at times."

District 5 Commissioner Ray Turner, who represents the Lakewood Ranch area, said the meeting might not have been perfect, but it's a start toward more accessibility and accountability. 

"We wanted to offer something unique," Turner said. "We wanted the folks to be able to meet those behind the scenes. We wanted to bring the government to you."

Turner was the last one to leave the high school, staying to answer any questions from his constituents.

"This was set up as a workshop, and we changed it into a town hall to allow more interaction," he said. "Do we shift it into a meeting? I don't know. But this was a unique opportunity. Perhaps we do it in the evening?"

Cary Knight, the director of property management for Manatee County, said he was impressed with the crowd. 

"Seeing this many people tells us how invested this community is," he said.

However, Turner said the county needs to find ways to get even bigger crowds to adequately address the Lakewood Ranch issues.

He said he sees bigger crowds at the HOA meetings when he holds a town hall.

Turner noted that he will talk with SMR about sound abatement along University Parkway to see if there are solutions. He said commissioners are working hard to push road projects through that would ease traffic congestion.

Getting amenities built at Premier is a priority.

"We are on the gas to get all these projects done," he said. 

For projects such as the aquatics/racket sports complex, Turner said it is a matter of just being more decisive.

"Make a decision, … and let's get it done!" he said. "People are overanalyzing, and we keep changing the cooks."

He noted that the makeup of the commission can change every two years.

"One board doesn't necessarily have the same priorities as another," he said.

While all Manatee County's main department heads were present, Turner said he hopes residents will use the commissioners as the point people in the projects. That way staff members will be free to concentrate on their jobs.

Meeting notes

Public Works Director Chad Butzow said his department is working hard to streamline the last segment of 44th Avenue, which crosses Interstate 75 and will provide Lakewood Ranch with a direct route to west Bradenton. He said the initially agreed-upon finish date is April 2026, but his department is shooting for an end-of-year 2025 finish.

The Lena Road connection, that will allow motorists to drive from State Road 64 to State Road 70 on Lena Road, is not quite as high a priority, but Butzow said the hope is that it will be finished "as close to the opening of 44th Avenue as possible."

While Turner said nothing is set in concrete, he said proposals are being considered for a possible arts or events center at Premier Park North. He said the center could be used as a multipurpose facility. A major Lakewood Ranch Boulevard resurfacing project is scheduled to start this summer if approved in the 2025 fiscal budget. In the meantime, a patching project will be used to make life easier on the motorists. The goal is that the resurfacing would be finished by Labor Day.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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