PALMETTO -- Back when Erie Road was a dirt road lined with fields of citrus groves, grazing cattle and old oak trees, there was no thought given to building a community of homes and calling it Woodlawn Lakes.
But in 1980, a developer named Pursley had the vision, and several model homes replaced the farms, hoping to attract families who wanted peace and quiet and room to enjoy the great outdoors with their children.
In 1988, Elmer and Dolores "Dee" Sauer discovered Woodlawn Lakes, and moved with their young son into the first of several residential developments to follow on Erie Road. With large plots and homes just under 2,000 square feet, winding roads, several
backyard ponds and few homeowner restrictions, Woodlawn Lakes was a perfect spot to settle in for life.
"We wanted to build a home that we could live every stage of our lives in, so we bought a lot of land with enough room for three bedrooms and an open living space that I could design to accommodate our dining room, living room and family room without sections of walls, which I hate," said Dee Sauer, whose house on Lake Drive, one of 120 in Woodlawn Lakes, has a large oak tree in the front adorned by a flower and rock garden diligently cared for by her husband.
"I knew this was going to be our last house, so I designed something that was easy to maneuver in. This felt like home from the beginning when we were just driving around with the curved streets and the large trees, and it's been good for all the stages of our lives." said Sauer, who spent 22 years as secretary of the Woodlawn Lakes Homeowners Association until just last year, when her husband, treasurer and a former conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, passed away.
With a Palmetto mailing address just up the road from the Ellenton Premium Outlets off U.S. 301 and south of the growing Parrish community, Woodlawn Lakes still preserves its character and mature distinction, unlike newer subdivisions of homes with little land for neighboring children to play together outdoors on their property.
Couples with young children are moving in. Commuting couples like the location close to major transportation, and longtime residents such as Sauer have no plans to leave.
Homeowner association fees are low because the community offers few public amenities such as a swimming pool or clubhouse but there are three open areas shaded by oak trees where children can play ball and families can hold picnics and get-togethers.
Next door, subdivisions Thousand Oaks and the Villages of Thousand Oaks, built just after Woodlawn Lakes by the same developer but run by a professional property management company, have the same old-style charm, large plots and a mix of young and older residents.
"This is kind of a live-and-let-live community," said Leslie Wells, owner of Leslie Wells Realty Inc. just around the corner from Woodlawn Lakes on U.S. 301. Wells, a real estate agent for 40 years and past president of the Manatee Association of Realtors, said she has always admired the community's outdoor philosophy, which the world of computers and the Internet has taken away.
"This community built homes on one-third of an acre of land, which is huge compared to a standard lot in the city of Bradenton. People here have spacious backyards and fewer restrictions, so you can still enjoy life. You don't see people walking down the streets with clipboards looking for violations like a boat or a pickup truck in your driveway." Wells said.
One of the first couples to settle and buy property in Woodlawn Lakes 29 years ago, Brice and Trish Hoopingarner, lived in Bradenton before stumbling upon the new development, and like the Sauers, they thought of it as a home forever. Trish said she fondly recalls it as the most wonderful place to raise her children, who now have children of their own.
"This was a great area for our kids to grow up in. We live on a cul-de-sac and bought the property next door, which became a neighborhood baseball field, and our backyard was our football field. Our long driveway became their roller skating rink, and we had a pool, so I literally couldn't get the kids to come back in the house in the summer," she said. "To this day, we get people coming to our door, asking if we want to sell our house because they can't get this space anywhere else."
The neighborhood is still extremely attractive to young couples with children. Buffalo Creek Park is nearby, and there are two public schools across the street from the park: Virgil Mills Elementary School and Buffalo Creek Middle School.
Dee Sauer said she was overjoyed when Mickey and Sonya Matson moved into the neighborhood. She convinced them to take over as treasurer and secretary of the Woodlawn Lakes Homeowner Association even though they work and have three children.
"I know that people are busy working and raising their children. They have stuff to do on Saturday, and Sunday is their time together. It's tough to get community things going but I really wanted younger people in the HOA," she said.
Mickey Matson, who commutes to work in Pinellas County, considered moving there but instead opted for Woodlawn Lakes.
"We love the neighborhood and we love the elementary school. It's got a great vibe, and the teachers do a great job," said Mickey, whose wife is a pre-kindergarten teacher. "As far as trying to manage our neighborhood, we are trying to keep the costs low and maintain it the way Dee and Elmer did, but it's hard. We want to keep it consistent with its past."
Wells says Woodlawn Lakes is in a prime spot near Parish, where more than 7,000 new homes are planned and commercial real estate is at a premium.
"Even though the homes in Woodlawn Lakes are older, and maybe three or four owners have lived in them previously, they've been rehabbed and are clean and well maintained by the individual homeowners," he said.
For resident Dennis Stinson, whose home in Woodlawn Lakes serves as the annual haunted house on Halloween -- complete with a homemade haunted driveway, where a 12-foot spider shoots water from its mouth and a skeleton in a coffin pops up -- he wouldn't live anywhere else.
"I've lived here 34 years and raised my children here. Everybody takes care of their place, and there's lots of room. I'm planning on staying."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.