LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Seventeen years after it opened as Lakewood Ranch's first village, Summerfield is still a great place to live.
Residents say the neighborhood is just as desirable now as the family-friendly destination it was intended to be when it was established in 1995 at State Road 70 and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
Oh, it's changed a bit over the years. The home prices have gone up, of course. And the neighborhood's faced its share of challenges, from traffic to vandalism to a proposed cell phone tower shot down by residents. It wasn't spared from the foreclosure crisis of the mid-2000s, either -- at one point, as many as 10 percent of its 1,500 homes and condos were in the foreclosure process, by one estimate.
Many of the original families have moved away, taking with them some of the bonds that linked Summerfield residents in the early days. Those who stayed have seen the neighborhood age -- "we've matured" is how 16-year Summerfield resident June Stroup puts it -- but they say it remains a great place for families young and old, with Braden River Elementary and Middle schools, Nolan Middle and McNeal Elementary and several community parks all nearby. Many residents say they've never regretted their decision to move in.
"We're happy," said Stroup, a Community Development District 1 supervisor who lives in Summerfield Glades with her husband, Jim. "We feel it's been a good choice. It's really well planned. There's a lovely lake behind us."
Ask Phyllis Troy what drew her to Summerfield back in 1997, and you might be surprised.
It wasn't the two lakes, the nature trail or the 15-acre community park of the same name housed in the neighborhood, although those were all selling points.
"You're going to laugh," Troy said. "It was the cows."
Troy built her Summerfield Park home after she retired, relocating from Dallas to be closer to her adult son and daughter. She'd been interested in the new master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch that was just beginning to take shape, but it was the allure of having cattle as her neighbors across Lakewood Ranch Boulevard that sealed the deal.
The cows have since been relocated further east by developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. to make room for more houses, but Troy, a district supervisor, has kept tabs on her former neighbors.
"I get reports at every board meeting," Troy said with a laugh.
Concern over the explosion of traffic on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard that came with the growth in East Manatee led Troy, a community supervisor, to get involved with local politics, successfully lobbying for traffic lights and stop signs near Summerfield's entrances. A plaque dated 2002 even commemorates her efforts at the intersection of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Parkside Place.
Beyond the traffic, Troy doesn't have a lot of complaints about life in Summerfield. Even if she did, she can't fathom moving and leaving behind one special resident who lives in the pond behind her home -- a gator she found lying on her porch as a baby shortly after she moved in.
"I couldn't leave George," she said.
Greg Spring sold the first home in Summerfield -- and in all of Lakewood Ranch, in fact.
"My goal is to sell the last one," said Spring, now a community specialist for Lakewood Ranch.
Back then, Spring was selling for one of Summerfield's seven original builders, Bruce Williams Homes, out of a kiosk at DeSoto Square mall in Bradenton before the models were finished.
That first home sold for right around $100,000 to a couple from New Jersey that has since moved away, Spring said. Some early Summerfield homes had starting prices as low as $88,000; resale listings for the neighborhood today range from the mid $200,000s to the mid $300,000s.
The first 50 Summerfield residents had their names memorialized as "Lakewood Ranch founders" on a plaque in Summerfield Park, where 50 trees were planted in their honor. Somewhere near the plaque is buried a time capsule, Spring said, stuffed with "newspaper clippings, things going on 1995. Nothing valuable. Hopefully it's still there."
Spring believed in the product so much he and wife Janice bought a home in Summerfield Park 17 years ago, moving down from Clearwater. They raised a daughter there, now 14, and Greg does a guided trail walk at 8 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month through Heron's Nest Nature Park.
Neighbors have come and gone, and so have some of the community activities that bonded them, like the annual Easter Egg hunt that moved next door to Greenbrook a few years ago. But Summerfield still holds an annual fishing tournament on 27-acre Summerfield Lake. A 10-year-old first-time angler caught a 29-inch, 10-pound bass at this year's tournament in March.
"There's big fish in Summerfield," Spring said.
Alan Roth is no stranger to the stigma, deserved or otherwise, that sometimes comes with governing and the rules and regulations of a community like Summerfield.
"I like to call this the people's republic of Lakewood Ranch," said Roth, a longtime community supervisor who has also served on Summerfield's safety and modifications committees, "even though I'm part of the problem."
June Stroup, like Roth a district supervisor and a Summerfield resident, hears those complaints too. "Occasionally, we get comments like 'the Nazi police,' " Stroup said.
Most of those criticisms are lobbed at Lakewood Ranch Town Hall and at Summerfield's homeowners association by a vocal minority, Roth said. "The majority of people prefer the strict rules," Roth said.
A fight over yard lamps and a neighborhood requirement that they use natural gas drew Roth into local government after he and his wife retired to Summerfield from Annapolis, Md., in 1999. Since then, he's been heavily involved in opposing a move to incorporate Lakewood Ranch as a city.
Roth and other supervisors have also grappled with a vandalism problem that cropped up in Summerfield a few years back. Most incidents were minor, but in one of the most serious, a pavilion in Heron's Nest Nature Park was burned down, causing about $25,000 in damage.
Most of the vandalism, Roth said, was done by middle school-aged kids with nothing better to do.
The community has tried to since give local kids more positive outlets for their free time, such as the recently installed lights at the basketball courts in Summerfield Park.
"I see them busy almost every night," Roth said.
Despite its issues and regulations, Roth said he's happy he moved to Summerfield -- for the most part.
"We're 85 percent happy," Roth said. "Overall, the place looks like a park," Roth said.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.