Year in review: Growth and guns on the Ranch in 2013

HERALD STAFF REPORTDecember 31, 2013 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- There's never a dull moment in ever-growing, ever-changing East Manatee, and 2013 was no exception.

From guns to apartments, business to mold, and of course, more development, here are the Herald's picks for some of the top stories from the past year in Lakewood Ranch and East Manatee:

Guns on the Ranch

Despite objections from neighbors, a mega church and a school, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. won approval in March to locate a gun club on its Lakewood Ranch property.

Manatee County found that plans for Ancient Oak Gun Club, which sits on a 532-acre sod farm near State Road 64 and Uihlein Road, fit in with the agricultural character of the surrounding area.

"It seemed to me it would fit with the Lakewood Ranch lifestyle," Rex Jensen, president and CEO of SMR, told the Herald in June. "We wanted to introduce nonshooters to the sport."

There are 24 shooting stations on two separate courses at the gun club, with wireless launchers so shooters can hit clay targets with shotguns.

Membership is open to the public.

Apartments sprout up

There was a time not long ago that Lakewood Ranch was nearly devoid of apartments.

That's no longer the case,

with several new apartment complexes popping up in and around the Ranch this year.

The latest is a new property coming to State Road 70 and Pope Road on land previously owned by SMR. The developer last month completed a $3.78 million sale of the 18-acre parcel to DD Sarasota II LLC, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Davis Development, which plans to build 270 apartments there.

Davis Development is no stranger to the area. It is already constructing a 237-unit luxury apartment complex called The Venue across the street from Lakewood Ranch Main Street and adjacent to the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. That project could be finished in eight or nine months, company officials recently said.

The new apartments join Colonial Grand, Lakewood Ranch's original apartments, which opened in 1999, and the 272-unit Lost Creek Apartments on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. That complex's developer, Winter Park-based P.A.C., is looking to cash in again with the construction of the 256-unit Creekside Apartments just next door.

And yet another luxury apartment complex will soon be open not far up the road from Lakewood Ranch: Ranch Lake Apartments will include 336 units on 48 acres along Ranch Lake Boulevard, behind the Walmart at State Road 70 and Interstate 75. The first tenants at the Forest Properties-owned apartments are slated to move in beginning in January.

Lakewood Ranch heads south

After more than three years of inactivity on its Villages of Lakewood Ranch South, developer SMR won changes earlier this year to the Sarasota 2050 plan, which it said it needed to ensure the viability of the project.

The plan, aimed at regulating growth in the eastern portion of Sarasota County in coming decades, has drawn criticism for being too restrictive. It also calls for projects to be "fiscally neutral" and not place a financial burden on existing taxpayers.

The new Villages will include thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet on 5,500 acres located south of University Parkway and east of Interstate 75.

Construction could begin as early as late 2014, SMR officials said.

SMR is also moving ahead with plans for it Lakewood Centre project north of State Road 70. The 697-acre mix of homes and apartments, commercial and office space and a planned 300-room hotel that could rise as tall as 12 stories would create a mixed-use town center similar to Main Street but on a larger, denser scale not yet seen in Lakewood Ranch.

USF comes to Main Street

The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee is coming to Lakewood Ranch Main Street.

The school inked a deal in October to bring its culinary program to a 4,500-square-foot space formerly occupied by Viking Culinary Center.

Some hospitality management courses will be offered there, and the program will partner with Tommy Klauber of Polo Grill and Fete Ballroom to offer students a real-world experience. It will also offer some programs to the public, including food courses, wine tastings and food for sale.

"It's a real good move for us because we don't have much presence at Lakewood Ranch," said Vice Chancellor Arthur Guilford.

The school aims to begin hosting classes there in January for as many as 75 students at a time.

This past year also saw the announcement of other new businesses on Main Street, including Healthy Living Organic and Natural Market and Shirts and Stones, which sells custom, rhinestone-studded clothes and apparel.

Willowbrook condo saga

KB Home, which received a black eye for shoddy construction at its Willowbrook town homes in East Manatee, continued to make repairs in 2013.

Work was moving along but no completion date had been set at the mold- and water-plagued condominium complex, located just near Lakewood Ranch, frustrating residents.

The story took a twist in October, when KB Home claimed in a lawsuit that a handful of former and current Willowbrook residents conspired to hack emails and create a website slamming the company in an effort to buy back their homes.

The company claimed, in the suit filed Oct. 11 in federal court in Tampa, that residents Andrew Smith and Daniel Koehler "have improperly used and trafficked in KB Home Marks in the domain name 'thekbhome.com' to divert traffic from KB Home, to disparage it, damage its reputation, and otherwise cause harm to KB Home."

Smith's site contains news stories about the severe construction issues at Willowbrook, including a link to a Channel 10 story titled "Moldy Home Could Lead to Deadly Infection."

"Our goal is to uncover the truth about KB Homes and prove that there is a nationwide problem with construction quality," the site says.

Smith has refused to take down the site and has retained legal representation from Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen in the fight with the builder.

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