SARASOTA -- After more than three years of inactivity since it was first approved, the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South project is beginning to move forward.
The massive housing and business development south of University Parkway and east of Interstate 75 overcame a significant barrier Wednesday, with the Sarasota County Commission's unanimous approval of an amendment to its contract with project developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc.
"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Todd Pokrywa, vice president of planning for SMR.
The amendment to the 2010 agreement allows the developer to begin residential construction on the 5,500-acre project before some roadway improvements are completed.
SMR has committed to extend Lakewood Ranch Boulevard as a four-lane roadway from its terminus at Communications Parkway to Fruitville Road, extend Lorraine Road as a two-lane road from University Parkway to Fruitville Road and build an east-west connecting road from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Lorraine Road. It will pay the full cost of all three projects.
SMR has also pledged up to $7.5 million for another proportionate share road project with the county. The amendment approved Wednesday gives them the option of putting that money toward a possible east-west connector overpass from the Villages project over Interstate 75 and Cattlemen Road. Officials say that project could be an alternative to improvements to the interchange of University Parkway and Interstate 75 proposed by the Florida Department of Transportation.
The other option is for SMR's $7.5 million to go toward construction of a four-lane Iona Road between Fruitville Road and Palmer Boulevard.
The Villages project has at least one more hurdle to clear: an amendment to the Development of Regional Impact plan SMR plans to file within a few months, Pokrywa said.
Lourdes Ramirez, president of the Sarasota Council of Neighborhood Associations, urged the commissioners to make infill development a first priority before allowing more growth eastward.
"The fact is, a lot of people travel here, but regional sprawl coming from Manatee is also the same as regional sprawl from eastern and rural areas of Sarasota County. They both will wind up clogging our roads," Ramirez said.
Commissioner Joe Barbetta said the past three and a half years since the project was initially approved have been a "protracted process" and that he's eager to see work begin.
"I'm very troubled that we're not going to see a stick in the road for a long, long time," Barbetta said. "We need to move things forward."
Pokrywa said if the forthcoming amendment is approved, SMR could be ready to begin design and construction of required infrastructure for the Villages and thousands of new homes in late 2014 or 2015.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.