Southwest Florida’s Last Land Grab

Published Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:05 am
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The 5,770 acre tract for sale in Sarasota County is the last of its kind.

NORTH PORT – Florida has long been the promised land for speculators, as developers and real estate magnates have helped to shape the state in both good and bad ways over the years.

The urge by state leaders to populate Florida goes back even further: the Armed Occupation Act of of 1842 was responsible for populating southwest Florida, promising 160 acres for any man willing to bear arms for the state and defend their new homestead with their lives against attack from Native Americans.

Of course, things are much different now and for one to make history they simply have to have enough money – evidenced by a 5,770 acre tract of land in eastern North Port to be auctioned off Feb. 13 to the highest bidder.

The land, once eyed for a sprawling, high end subdivision called Isles of Athena, was supposed to feature thousands of homes, pools, golf courses and other amenities.

Instead, it has led a quiet, if not ideal, existence following the economic downturn, when the housing market collapsed and ruined thousands, if not millions of lives. The land looks much like it has for thousands of years; deer, wild turkey and hogs freely roam the property, which is dotted with streams, bass-stocked ponds and strands of oak hammocks.

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The property will be auctioned off on Febuary 13 to the highest bidder.

According to William Bone, president of Gadsden, Alabama-based National Auction Group, the seven square mile property dubbed McCall Ranch is a rarity, a veritable “Last of the Mohicans” type of opportunity that exists nowhere else in South Florida.

It’s the largest piece of privately owned land left in the southern half of a state still grappling with unchecked urban sprawl, and in some cases, communities like North Port who are still grappling with their identity.

While other properties of this size still exist in South Florida as parks and preserves, they too may not be safe from development. The Manatee County Planning and Zoning Board set a recent precedent when they voted in favor of rezoning a 6.9 acre-property on the eastern side of Terra Ceia Island. With one vote, the land, which is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), went from a conservation zone to a mixed use property. The parcel is adjacent to a preserve and considered a flood zone.

Bone’s company will be overseeing the February auction, which he describes as having the potential to be “quite an event,” one that could draw as many varied interests such as developers, private investors or environmentalists.

It costs $200,000 just to register for the auction, Bone said, and the property has been listed for sale with various real estate agencies over the years. Most recently it was listed at $36 million, although appraisal information was unavailable.

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The property, for the most part, remains untouched.

According to Bone, a property that size simply does not exist anymore, unless it’s in the hands of federal or state agencies.

While it’s doubtful that the land would be preserved by local legislators, Bone did say that it’s possible an environmental group could snatch the land up in order to keep it in its pristine, natural condition.

But the land will likely become what so many others across the state have turned into, like the sprawling and epic Lakewood Ranchcommunity in Manatee County, that spreads over nearly 31,000 acres and boasts 11,000 residents in 5,000 homes.

Lakewood Ranch was so successful, developers decided to create another sprawling residential development in northern Manatee County, dubbed “Lakewood Ranch Jr.” by the Bradenton Herald editorial board.

The success rate of these types of developments is spotty at best, especially in a post-housing collapse world.

Just to the south of McCall Ranch, a 17,000 acre property called Babcock Ranch spans two counties and was envisioned by developer and former professional football playerSyd Kitson as a green, futuristic community that was powered entirely with solar energy.

The development has started and stalled over the years, and even been infused with $40 million worth of public dollars. It was supposed to serve as both preserve and city, with free wireless internet that spanned the entire property, dozens of schools, light industry, manufacturing, shopping, dining, business parks and more than 8,000 homes.

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The parcel is located in eastern North Port.

If a developer with deep pockets and a renewed sense of ambition thinks McCall Ranch is going to be the next great community in Southwest Florida, then it’s got some competition to both the north and the south; that is, if Kitson ever breaks ground on Babcock, which is now scheduled for 2016.

The developer would also have to contend with the glut of vacant and foreclosed homes that pepper not only North Port but all of southernSarasota County; so in addition to deep pockets, they would have a deep well of patience.

Lakewood Ranch took nearly 20 years to grow to 11,000 residents. So if McCall Ranch does one day become yet another planned community, it would likely take decades for it to flourish. Of course, as those years roll by, an entire generation of young Floridians will not have access to the land, not unless they want to buy it, and the chance to preserve these kinds of opportunities will lessen.

Is there a balance that can be found? Of course. But one way or the other history will be made on Feb. 13, as a final piece of Florida’s heritage will be handed to the highest bidder.

FHP: Keeping Roads Safe for 75 Years

Published Sunday, February 9, 2014 12:05 am

FHP train in Bradenton. Photo: Florida Memory Project

FHP train in Bradenton.
Photo: Florida Memory Project

It was 7:30 a.m. on May 9, 1980, when a blinding thunderstorm caused the MV Summit Venture freighter to strike one of the Sunshine Skyway’s concrete pilings.

The accident collapsed 1,250 feet of the southbound lanes of the bridge and caused the deaths of 35 people after seven cars and a bus plummeted to the water before traffic could be stopped.

Florida Highway Patrol traffic investigators were tasked with sorting out the details of those 35 deaths, and a final report tallied 570 pages. It was one of the many times the agency has played a part in Florida’s history. Over the years, their contributions to the state and its residents have been invaluable.

Even in 1980, as investigators pieced together the tragic end to those 35 lives, the agency was a long way from its roots. Like much of Florida, they were born out of a modern frontier-like landscape that owed more to agriculture than beaches, Mickey Mouse and vacation resorts.

In the Beginning

It was the early 1930s and the American automobile was on the rise.

People were more mobile than ever, as families started to steer away from train travel to the empowering feeling of driving their own cars. The growth of automobile travel of course coincided with the expansion of the nation’s roadways and the start of a migrating population, one that was captured by John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

With this newfound mobile freedom, people were more attracted to Florida than ever, but this rise of an automobile culture also came with the increased need to patrol the roads.

Florida was overwhelmed by the sudden need to enforce the laws on roadways, especially after former Governor Doyle Carlton deemed it the responsibility of the state’s newly formed road department in 1931.

Two unidentified troopers on the side of the road circa 1941. Photo: Florida Memory Project

Two unidentified troopers on the side of the road circa 1941.
Photo: Florida Memory Project

It wasn’t until 1934 that the Florida Highway Patrol first took shape, when Governor Dave Sholtz decided that a division dealing strictly with traffic enforcement was needed after the state’s road department was overwhelmed with keeping up with infrastructure needs while dually enforcing traffic laws.

By 1936 there were 25 traffic inspectors in the new traffic enforcement divison. Outfitted with a green military color style uniform, the unit was led by a man named H. Neil Kirkman, a former Army Major who had an expertise in engineering. The state’s roads were now being policed and overseen by an agency that had the leadership they needed.

But it would all come crashing down in 1937, when Governor Fred Cone dismantled the department in what he said was a cost saving move, forcing the state legislature to create the State Department of Public Safety and its two divisions; the Florida Highway Patrol and the Division of State Motor Vehicle Drivers Licenses in 1939.

The state legislature authorized the hiring of 60 officers, and 5,000 men applied. Eventually, the first troop, consisting of 31 officers, was assembled and the first academy was taught at the Bradenton Municipal Pier, which in the present day is Pier 22. Troopers were housed at the Manavista Hotel and trained at the site of present day Bradenton City Hall. They were paid $1,500 per year; thereafter, the salary would increase $120 a year until a maximum of $2,000 a year was reached.

Portrait of Florida Highway Patrolman Bill Norris, graduate of the 1941 patrol school in Lakeland, Florida. He was said to be one of the best riders on the highway patrol and stationed in Orlando, Florida, according to the Florida Memory Project

Portrait of Florida Highway Patrolman Bill Norris, graduate of the 1941 patrol school in Lakeland, Florida. He was said to be one of the best riders on the highway patrol and stationed in Orlando, Florida, according to the Florida Memory Project

Now entering its 75th year, the Florida Highway Patrol has grown into one of the busiest agencies in the state, a longstanding tradition that began during its first year of operation when those scant 31 troopers clocked 154,829 hours of patrol time, investigated 1,000 accidents, examined 127 motorists killed, patrolled 1,938,564 miles, aided 1,132 persons injured and  arrested 4,836 motorists.

The 1940s saw the number of Troopers increased by 190, along with an added $150 a year for those eager to sign up for the busy and increasingly important line of work.

In 1952, the state was divided into sectors or different troops, designated by an alphabetic system that still exists today. The first speed sign in Florida was erected in 1953.

Many of the organization’s signatures, including the tan uniforms and their insignia that featured the state’s largest cash crop at the time, the orange, were introduced in the 1950s and remain largely unchanged.

But as the 1950s rolled on, the FHP would face one of their greatest challenges – a nationwide interstate system, which would be contracted by the federal government.

Interstates Change the Game

Simeon "Simmie" Moore holding his daughter Frances "Teenie" Moore in Madison County, Fla. circa 1937 or 1938. Moore drove an Indian motorcycle and was later Madison County sheriff (1948-1972). Photo: Florida Memory Project.

Simeon “Simmie” Moore holding his daughter Frances “Teenie” Moore in Madison County, Fla. circa 1937 or 1938. Moore drove an Indian motorcycle and was later Madison County sheriff (1948-1972).
Photo: Florida Memory Project.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956, pledging $25 billion to build 41,000 miles of the newly designed interstate highway system.

Florida was almost immediately thrust into the action, as construction of Interstate 95 started in 1957, and work on Interstate 10 began in 1958.

Work on Interstate 75 wouldn’t begin in Florida until the mid 1960s, but by then the agency was already in the swing of patrolling the new roadways, which now connected the entire nation in a way that it had never been before.

By the end of the 1950s, the agency had already instituted new tactics and technologies to make their jobs easier. This included a new teletype system which allowed the different troops to communicate effectively, according to Lt. Greg Bueno, the current public affairs officer for Fort Myers-based Troop F, which serves 10 counties including Sarasota and Manatee,

The agency celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 1959, having grown from 31 men to 461 “well trained and well equipped officers,” Bueno said. It expanded to 11 troops, which still exist to this day and patrol all corners of the state.

Other highlights include:

  • The 1960s saw the agency take to the skies, as they started using two Piper aircraft to enforce traffic laws. By the 1980s the fleet would grow to 11 planes and eventually include the use of helicopters in the 1990s. Three pilots have been killed in the line of duty.
  • 1971 saw a trooper named Joe Willie DeCoursey join the ranks, beginning a 25-year career with the agency. DeCoursey, who served as a traffic homicide investigator, would retire in 1996, making him the first African-American trooper to reach 25 years of service.
  • The 1980s saw the agency having a hand in some of the more prominent Florida events of the decade, including assisting with the processing of 125,000 Cuban refugees following the Mariel Boatlift; FHP homicide troopers investigating the 35 deaths that resulted from the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway in 1980, after a cargo ship struck the bridge’s concrete pilings; 100 troopers from across the state being sent to Liberty City, to help bring order to a community that had a crime rate spiraling out of control. During that time troopers made 58,000 arrests.

By the late 90s Florida had the fourth largest population in America, with 14.7 million residents. Four hundred and fifty people a day were moving to Florida by 1998, according to stats, and the FHP had to develop new ways to ensure law and order on the state’s roadways.

Florida Highway Patrolman Ralph Moore , Tallahassee, Fla., stands by the cab driven by murder victim Adam William "Bud" Jenkins. Photo: Florida Memory Project

Florida Highway Patrolman Ralph Moore , Tallahassee, Fla., stands by the cab driven by murder victim Adam William “Bud” Jenkins.
Photo: Florida Memory Project

According to Bueno, by the year 2000, the agency was dedicated with using the latest technologies in their vehicles, including mobile data computers, mapping software, finger print scanners and two camera systems.

The agency’s mission has stayed the same, even through the tools have changed, Bueno said, to protect both the safety of the public and the troopers, many of whom have fallen in the line of duty.

Forty-eight troopers have died while on the job since 1936; Trooper Royston E. Walker was the first to fall, when he was shot and killed on Aug. 31, 1936 by a motorist he was trying to stop for having faulty headlights. Walker had been a trooper for seven months. The most recent trooper to fall was William H. Dyer III, who died in a single vehicle crash in Leon County, after serving as a trooper for 16 years.

As the agency celebrates its 75th Anniversary, the FHP is undoubtedly looking ahead while honoring its past. For three quarters of a century, the agency has grown as the state has, answering the call while often paying for it with the ultimate sacrifice.

As more and more people will continue to be drawn to the state, the role of the FHP will continue to grow, in order to meet the demands of public safety and to meet all of the challenges ahead.