GET READY. The once-sleepy South Sarasota County that has drawn tourists, snowbirds and year-round residents alike to its many small-town charms is poised for transformational growth. More than 33,000 new residential units are under way or on the drawing boards from S.R. 681 in Nokomis south to Toledo Blade and I-75, just outside the southern North Port city limits. Together, they’re expected to bring an estimated 54,000 newcomers to South County by 2030.
Tucked amid all that new construction are historic old neighborhoods, communities rich with golf and other resort amenities, breathtaking beachfront estates and quiet places to contemplate nature.
Looking for your own piece of paradise? Let’s take a tour.
First stop is the vibrant city of Venice. (We’re referring here to the historic “Island of Venice,” bound on the west by the Gulf of Mexico and on the east by the Intracoastal Waterway.) Anybody who’s strolled palm-lined Venice Avenue during the bustling tourist season, browsing through its dozens of interesting small shops and sampling its many excellent restaurants or attending a concert in its old-timey gazebo, can attest to its lure.
The city has a unique history. In 1925, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), a railroad union based in Cleveland, Ohio, purchased 55,000 acres in south Sarasota County and hired renowned Boston architect and planner John Nolen to create a resort city that would lure well-off winter residents from the cold Midwest. BLE realtors courted potential buyers with everything from lobster-and-candelabra picnics on the beach to hunting expeditions in the wilds of eastern Sarasota County. It worked; by the late 1920s, charming little Venice had a winter population of several thousand.
From the start, Nolen pictured a walkable, human-scaled small city, with distinct neighborhoods all within strolling distance of a few-blocks-long shopping district along Venice Avenue. Wide, landscaped boulevards and homes built around playgrounds or parks were central to Nolen’s vision for this planned city, which was one of the nation’s first. It is still that way today, thanks to rigorous building codes that keep out high-rises and require Northern Italian-style architectural influences in all new buildings located in the historical and Venetian themed districts.
Within walking distance of the compact downtown shopping district are historic 1920s-era Mediterranean Revival estates surrounded by more modest single-family homes. A few blocks west lead you directly to the Gulf of Mexico and Venice Beach, a favorite spot to comb for shark’s teeth. Here is a mix of 1970s low-rise condominiums and single-family homes.
There’s a boomlet of boutique residential developments taking shape on the island, among them Tra Ponti Villagio, with 23 homes on the Intracoastal between Venice and Tampa avenues, and Island Court, with 26 maintenance-free townhomes on Nokomis Avenue and Turin Street.
The hubs of cultural life here are the award-winning Venice Theatre, Venice Art Center and the new Venice Performing Arts Center; with nearly 1,100 seats, it’s home to the Venice Symphony, Venice Concert Band and the Venice Chorale. And Venetians love to party. More than 3,000 residents march in the annual holiday parade. The Sharks Tooth Festival draws thousands each April to the Venice Airport festival grounds, and there’s the Venice Blues Festival, the Italian Feast and Carnival and the Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash, the largest event of its kind in Southwest Florida. Even the Sarasota Chalk Festival up and moved to Venice a couple of years ago.
Now that the Legacy Trail, a hugely popular 10-mile bicycle trail that runs along a former CSX railroad corridor, terminates in Venice, it’s also become a city known for its outdoor pursuits. Scenic Venetian Waterway Park provides five miles of biking and walking trails along the Intracoastal Waterway; it connects to the Legacy Trail at the Historic Venice Train Depot. And the Rev3 triathlon each November draws top athletes from around the state to compete in swimming, bicycling and running events.
Off the Island
Venice is exploding in every direction. In the Jacaranda Boulevard and East Laurel Road area, which the post office calls North Venice, Neal Communities is building the Villages of Milano and The Woods with about 1,000 planned homes. The newly expanded Honore Extension, which provides an I-75 alternate route from Pinebrook and Laurel roads north to Sarasota, is also seeing enormous growth. Taylor Morrison’s Bellacina by Casey Key will bring 302 houses; and the Hammocks, the southernmost Palmer Ranch development at the end of Bee Ridge Road, is expanding south to Honore to include about 400 single-family homes and villas. All these new houses will create a seamless community along the southernmost Honore Extension between Palmer Ranch and Venice.
Just outside the city limits on River Road, Neal Communities is in the midst of building the 2,000-residence Grand Palm, which it expects to build out in about a decade. Lennar is developing Gran Paradiso, a gated community of single-family homes and villas in south Venice off U.S. 41. And D.R. Horton last summer introduced the gated community of Rapalo off S.R. 776 toward Manasota Key, which will have 109 homes at build-out.
And many longtime master-planned communities offer a wide range of suburban ranch homes and villas with vista views, amenity centers with a plethora of planned activities, and at many of them, 18 or more holes of golf. Among them are Jacaranda Country Club, Plantation Golf & Country Club, Waterford Golf Club, Mission Valley Golf & Country Club, Calusa Lakes, Capri Isles, Pelican Pointe Golf & Country Club, Sawgrass and Venetian Golf & River Club. Del Webb’s newish 55-and-older “active adult” community Venetian Falls, off Center Road, doesn’t have a traditional golf course, but it does boast a 16,000-square-foot resort-style clubhouse with large pool and spa, a nine-hole putting green and four bocce courts.
Fast-Growing North Port
One of Florida’s fastest-growing cities of the early 2000s, and, at 120 square miles, one of the largest in land area, North Port is home to young families and value-conscious retirees because of its affordable subdivisions and its central location close to I-75 along the Sarasota-Charlotte county line.
Major golf course communities like Bobcat Trail and Heron Creek continue to attract active retirees from the Midwest and other Northern climes. More than 80,000 visitors, including many Eastern Europeans, flock each year to Warm Mineral Springs, where the 87-degree waters are said to have vast healing powers.
Technically in North Port, but bearing Venice addresses, Sarasota National is a big WCI master-planned community of 2,400 acres that’s approved for 1,584 homes, 800 of which surround the tony golf and country club portion of the amenity-rich neighborhood. The community has set aside 1,300 acres for a preservation-conservation area.
Nearby is DiVosta’s master-planned IslandWalk at the West Villages, with 1,800-plus home sites on 830 acres. The gated, resort-amenities-centered community boasts the largest swimming pool in Sarasota County. D.R. Horton is making inroads in North Port with Talon Bay, a gated, master-planned community of 233 single-family homes and villas with lovely water and nature preserve views. The clubhouse has a heated pool, tennis courts and a kayak launch on the Myakkahatchee Creek. Del Webb is building the active adult community of Cypress Falls at The Woodlands, and Lennar is developing the Villas at Charleston Park.
And enormous growth is just around the corner. Canada’s largest homebuyer, Mattamy Homes, last year purchased the bulk of the 11,000-acre Thomas Ranch just south of Venice, where it plans to develop some 15,000 homes over the next 20 to 25 years. It’s the largest tract of land the Canadian homebuilder has ever bought in the United States. Mattamy has already announced plans for its first development there, the Preserve at West Villages, with 108 homes.
Osprey and Nokomis
The unincorporated communities of Osprey and Nokomis, located between Sarasota and Venice, have awakened to residential and commercial growth. In Osprey, the public Pine View School for gifted students is a big lure, and surrounding it family-friendly neighborhoods such as Rivendell and Willowbend have cropped up. Osprey’s elegant master-planned community, The Oaks, straddles both sides of U.S. 41. Once part of Bertha Palmer’s vast estate, it was built to reflect her elegant style, with large, classic Georgian-style custom homes on heavily wooded properties on the bay side, and, on the east side, executive homes surrounding the grand private Oaks Country Club’s championship golf course.
Just down the road is Oscar Scherer State Park, a 1,400-acre habitat for the elusive Florida scrub jay. It offers 15 miles of nature trails, campgrounds and plenty of paddling opportunities on South Creek. And Historic Spanish Point, the original winter home of Bertha Honore Palmer, widow of Chicago real estate magnate Potter Palmer (he gave her the Palmer House Hotel as her wedding present) and one of America’s wealthiest women at the turn of the last century, is open to the public as a living history museum. Here, the public can tour her water garden, sunken garden, Duchene lawn and fern and jungle walk.
Neighboring Nokomis, the southern gateway to Casey Key, boasts Intracoastal Waterway and canal-front subdivisions, plus homes along Roberts Bay, Dona Bay and Lyons Bay. They’re primarily older and a bit more laid-back than Sarasota’s waterfront developments, and the lower price tags reflect it. In Sorrento Shores, for example, which straddles Osprey and Nokomis, real estate experts say canal-front homes are priced about $300,000 less than comparable Sarasota properties. “Your dollar goes a lot farther here,” one agent told us.
Casey Key and Manasota Key
Tucked behind sea grapes and bougainvillea, compounds for the rich and private predominate on Casey Key, a quiet single-family enclave on nine lush Gulf-to-bay miles. To the north, a historic, 1920s-era swing bridge separates the island from the mainland; and the recently restored Nokomis Beach Pavilion, with its sleek 1950s modern architecture, is at the southern end.
To the south, 7.5-mile Manasota Key straddles Sarasota and Charlotte counties between Lemon Bay and the Gulf. Narrow Manasota Key Road, with its dense tree canopy, seems like a road into Florida’s past. On the island’s north end, you’ll find impressive single-family estates, many of them Gulf to bay. On the south, Charlotte County end, there are small multifamily condo complexes, mom-and-pop motels and a few restaurants. Midway down the island is a jumble of historic wooden cottages now known as The Hermitage Artist Retreat. The nonprofit organization, founded by the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, brings artists, musicians and writers to its unspoiled beachfront campus to draw creative inspiration from the setting. Look for their schedule of free beach readings and open studio tours.