By Kim Hackett

A reporter and resident who loves our city’s small-town flavor considers the coming wave of development.

The recession is over and building is back, especially here in Venice, where thousands of new homes are now in the planning stages, so many that the city’s population could increase 50 percent, from 20,000 to 30,000 in the next two decades. And that doesn’t even include the people who will be moving into the 15,000 new homes approved just outside the city limits. That kind of growth means jobs and prosperity for some of us—and dramatic changes for us all. As a longtime resident who loves the quiet, close-knit nature of our little community—but also knows it needs to grow and prosper—I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about that.

My husband, David, and I ended up in Venice in the usual way young people end up in a city with one of the oldest median ages in the country—by visiting a retired parent. Our family would annually pack up the minivan and trek 1,100 miles from Indianapolis to spend a week or two with my mother. Our three kids would gripe the entire way because David refused to stop and eat at any chain restaurants and insisted the kids count license plates and play “I spy” instead of watching videos.

But once we arrived—ahhh, paradise. Our routine was to tire the kids out at the beach, tuck them in at night so Grandma didn't have to do much babysitting, and then head to a moonlit Nokomis Beach. We’d walk for hours, mostly having the beach to ourselves, wondering why we lived landlocked, putting up with months of icy winters. Then, during a visit a decade ago, David, a newspaper editor, impulsively popped into the Herald-Tribune’s Venice bureau. By the time we hit the Georgia border on the way back, he had a job offer—albeit one with a sunshine pay cut—and a month later, we moved here. We never looked back.

Venice is famous for its small-town flavor, and from the beginning, we loved the Mayberry feel of the place. With one high school in town, thousands of people, many third- and fourth-generation families, pack Powell-Davis Stadium on Friday nights, dressed in green and white to cheer the nationally recognized football team at Venice High, a school that dates to the 1920s. But this small town has some big-town amenities and attractions. Our children have excelled in some of the best schools and sports programs in the state.

And as beach lovers, we’ve found no place in Florida that has as much public beach access as Venice, whether you want to launch a boat, take long walks along the shore or cool off with a swim. Even though we live tucked in the woods on the east side, we can drive to the dog beach, Nokomis, Venice, South Brohard or Caspersen beaches in about 10 minutes most of the year, and—unlike on crowded Siesta and Lido beaches to the north—never have a parking problem. We've got a historic, walkable downtown with sports bars, upscale French and Italian dining, coffee shops and one of the best community theaters in the country.

But with the new wave of building, the Venice we know is going to change—perhaps dramatically. Let’s take a look at what’s in store.

The city has already approved four new developments in the east Laurel Road area that will add about 3,100 homes in a three-mile area that stretches to Border Road, with hundreds more homes working their way through the planning process. Just outside the city limits on River Road, Neal Communities is in the midst of building the 2,000-home Grand Palm, which it expects to build out in about a decade. And just south of Venice, Canada’s largest home builder, Mattamy Homes, recently purchased 9,600 acres in the West Villages Improvement District, which used to be Taylor Ranch, where it plans to develop 11,000 homes over the next 20 to 25 years. It’s the largest tract of land the Canadian home builder has ever bought in the United States.

The approaching tsunami of new building has already reignited arguments about growth—a controversy that seems to be part of our city’s DNA.

Since the 1920s, Florida—including Southwest Florida—has been famous for building booms and busts. During the last real estate boom, which peaked about a decade ago, developers were tearing down modest, 1950s style-homes on the historic island of Venice and building multi-story homes and condos. There was talk of turning the city-owned public Lake Venice Golf Club into a private course with an adjoining resort hotel. When three eight-story condo towers went up along the Intracoastal Waterway, many residents feared the island could become swamped with high-rises—“like Naples.” Residents organized and tossed out a pro-growth city council in favor of one that clamped down on island building regulations. Then, in 2010, after the housing market tanked and unemployment soared, voters tossed out the slow-growthers in favor of a business-friendly council. Clearly, Venice voters have shown that they are as ambivalent as I am about growth.

Now, people are beginning to worry about another boom. This time, the reverberations are felt most strongly on the rural east side of I-75.

On Border Road, where residents live on five or more acres in homes that are often hidden behind a thicket of woods, people fear for their way of life. They now board horses, operate small farms or are just the kind of folks who don’t want to be bothered with neighbors and nettlesome subdivision rules. They became city residents about six years ago, when the city annexed thousands of acres of land, where developer Pat Neal now wants build 1,000 houses, between Border and Laurel roads in two developments.

“Save our Border Road” signs line Border Road all the way to where the street dead-ends at Sleeping Turtle and the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve. Residents worry about the flood-prone area getting more and worse flooding as undeveloped land is replaced with concrete and homes.

At the Wildlife Center of Venice, a quarter mile from the proposed Woods of Venice development, volunteers treat about 4,000 injured bobcats, raccoons and birds every year and return them to the wild. Co-founder and executive director Kevin Barton says the development will destroy a wildlife corridor, leaving animals on small, separated parcels of land without enough room to roam and thrive.

“I’ve got personal issues and environmental issues with this development,” says Barton, who grew up in South Venice and now lives on 10 acres near the proposed development. “I grew up on a one-horse street. We had indigo snakes and skunks. I’d have scrub jays landing on my head. Most of those things are gone. Now I’m fighting for what’s left.”

“Border Road is a gateway to the preserves and should not have homes backing up” to it, wrote another resident, Cyndi Ackerland, in an email to city officials urging them to oppose development.

Even many of those who are not affected, including most of the 372 fans of the new Venice Area Citizens for Responsible Development Facebook page, are concerned about our area’s small-town flavor changing.

“We have gone from one extreme to the other,” wrote Paul San, on the Facebook site. “Five years ago, you couldn’t find a new house in Venice. Now there are going to be thousands.” He fears traffic will be like “the season all year around.”

Neal, with a number of developments underway, is the most prolific builder in the Venice area. He frequently attends community meetings about his developments to listen to people’s concerns, sometimes altering his building plans in response.

Baby boomers are going to be heading to Florida in record numbers, Neal has said, and with vacant, buildable land getting scarcer in north Sarasota, Venice is “becoming the center of the [building] universe.”

“Venice is one of the most desirable places to live anywhere in this state,” says Neal Communities’ president Mike Storey. “There are gorgeous beaches, a beautiful downtown, a lot of amenities and nice people.” And Venice Mayor John Holic says that the next decade will bring new parks and new communities that “have good aesthetics and good appeal.”

For all those reasons, thousands of new residents will soon be settling in the region.

Who will they be, and how will they change the way we live?

Storey says Neal Communities’ buyers come from the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Florida, in that order. About 6 percent are international buyers, with about half of those coming from Canada. In the past, he notes, buyers from the Northeast were more likely to head to the Atlantic coast, but many now are choosing Southwest Florida.

These new buyers tend to be active adults, Storey says, people who enjoy the recreational, cultural and other amenities our region offers. In addition to baby boomers, “We see empty nesters and working people, ages 45 to 59, and we are now beginning to see families with children return to the marketplace,” he says.

But even though the new communities are attracting many working-age people and some families with children, population trends make it likely our region will remain older.

Christopher McCarty, director of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, says more than half of Southwest Florida’s population growth over the next 20 years will come from people 60 and older. Today about 42 percent of Floridians work; that’s expected to drop to 36 percent by 2030, meaning Venice is likely to remain a retirement community.

When I think of tens of thousands of new people arriving here, I shiver. I’ve now been here long enough to consider myself a local. I gripe loudly and frequently about the annual invasion of snowbirds. My travel for work and errand-running times take twice as long. I get tired of dodging caravans of slow-moving shopping carts at the grocery. I avoid my favorite restaurants because of the crowds.

I plead guilty to sometimes having what land-use attorney Jeff Boone calls the “now I’m here, close the door and don’t let anyone else in” mentality.

It’s unsettling to think of our lives and routines upended because of more housing and more people. And in the last few years, government at all levels has loosened growth regulations—often significantly. Many business leaders and elected officials are advocating for even less regulation. Like many other citizens—in a recent survey, Sarasota County residents ranked growth as their top concern, considerably ahead of the economy—I worry about that.

Until three years ago, the state of Florida provided a backstop to local plans, making sure wetlands were protected and roads were adequate, especially in developments that affected a large region. But the state changed that when it dismantled the 1985 Growth Management Act, which was written in response to runaway Florida growth in the 1970s and 1980s and had some

of the toughest regulations in the country. Now planning decisions are in the hands of local officials. Venice and Sarasota County have slashed impact fees, which were designed so developers could pay for the new roads and schools that were needed as a result of their projects. So far, no one is seriously talking about returning impact fees to their pre-recession levels. Already two-lane River Road is burdened; what will happen when we get thousands of new residents and have no funding to expand it?

It would be especially sad if we fail to plan carefully for the coming growth, since Venice is famous for good city planning. City leaders like to boast it is charming by design. In 1926, the noted city planner John Nolen created a plan for Venice that included a central downtown, an apartment district, neighborhoods for workers and for the well-heeled, with a network of parks and sidewalks connecting the different parts of the community. While many towns evolved into suburbs after World War II, with separate living and commercial districts, Venice mostly stuck to Nolen’s plan.

A notable—and in some ways, unfortunate exception—is the condo towers lining the Gulf that were erected pre-Growth Management Act. Nolen called for the Gulf-front to remain undeveloped, with open vistas, and left for public use.

Another short-sighted decision was allowing the city’s only beachfront hotel to be rezoned for condos during the last boom. Today, many regret the loss of hotel rooms—and of a Gulf-front hotel, where residents as well as visitors can dine or attend special events.

As we brace for growth, I hope our leaders will avoid such short-sighted decisions and remember the importance of planning that preserves the character and charm that make us so attractive to newcomers in the first place.

Yet it’s easy to dwell on the negatives and  to overlook the positives that growth might bring.

Much as I lament traffic and worry about the changes ahead, steady growth has invigorated downtown. The Daiquiri Deck, an import from Sarasota, created a nightlife vibe when it opened downtown two years ago. Now there is a martini bar and new, upscale restaurants and bakeries. You even need reservations at some popular restaurants during the off season—something I don’t remember happening until recently. We look forward to more variety in shopping and entertainment so we don’t have to head up to Sarasota for organic grocers and favorite retailers.

And I’m relieved to see my friends and neighbors working again now that the building industry has rebounded. They’re busy working in hospitals, running restaurants, installing sprinkler systems and building kitchen cabinets. During the recession, we saw neighbors getting evicted from their homes, not because they had gambled on real estate, but because they lost jobs or their customer base. Our handyman, Keith, who owns a painting and pressure-washing business, lost his house when work dried up. A single father, he tiled and did odd jobs to support his two children. Now he has three employees and is sending his daughter to college.

Our family was not immune to the recession, either; both my husband and I worked at the Herald-Tribune, which lost about half its advertising revenue and closed three bureaus, leaving hundreds of our colleagues without work.

Regardless of how leaders talk about the need for a more diversified economy, our region still depends on building and tourism.

Many of the changes people worry about are already under way, and they’ve been mostly positive. So far, no road has transformed more than Laurel Road, which we used to travel when we drove our kids to the then rural Laurel Nokomis School. The school buildings were the only ones on a two-mile, wooded stretch. Now there is a Publix-anchored shopping plaza with a restaurant, salons and the ultimate harbinger of growth—a McDonald’s. Soon, the last and southern leg of the Honore Avenue extension will break through Laurel at Pine-brook Road, creating a north-south alternative to U.S. 41 and I-75—a welcome relief after several recent I-75 accidents have paralyzed traffic.

East of the newly reconstructed I-75 interchange, the city has approved three developments with about 3,000 homes. A new Jacaranda Boulevard extension now provides the residents on east Laurel Road a connection with the rest of the city. Before, residents in the two existing communities had only Laurel Road to get in and out—trapping them several years ago when there was an explosion at the western end of Laurel and I-75.

And all those new residents will bring new backgrounds and talents to town. They’ll likely contribute to our arts scene, volunteer with local charities and add new ideas and voices to our civic life. They’ll also spark the growth of businesses from furniture stores and financial services to restaurants and gyms, allowing more working families to thrive—which will also boost our diversity.

Change is scary, but it’s also exciting, and there is little you can do to stop it. As Mayor Holic puts it, “Venice is no longer an undiscovered city.” With smart planning and good development, it may not continue to be the city we know and love—but it could be an even more interesting and just as beautiful place to live. |||


Kim Hackett has reported on Venice for more than a decade for local publications, from the Herald-Tribune to this magazine.


Coming Attractions

Some new Venice communities heading our way.

Grand Palm, along River and Center roads; 1,999 homes planned; developed by Neal Com-munities and now under construction.

Portofino, at Laurel Road Knights Trail; planned for 650 homes or 450,000 square feet of retail; developed by John Peshkin. Approved in February.

Toscana Isles, at Knights Trail, north of Laurel Road; planned for 1,700 homes, developed by John Peshkin and now under construction.

Villages of Milano, along Jacaranda Boulevard from Laurel to Border roads; 700 homes planned; developed by Neal Communities and now under construction.

Verona Reserve, along Jacaranda Boulevard, south of Venice Avenue; 165 homes planned; developed by Taylor Morrison and now under construction.

Windwood, located on Pinebrook Road, south of Laurel Road; 90 homes planned; developed by Neal Communities and now under construction.

The Woods at Venice, along Border and Jackson roads; 263 homes planned; to be developed by Neal Communities, which has not yet sought approvals.

West Villages Improvement District, 11,000 acres U.S. 41, east of Jacaranda Boulevard; 15,000 homes planned, developed by Mattamy Homes, and DiVosta, now under construction.


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