BRADENTON -- Manatee County's biggest homebuilder has paid $3.2 million for two rare pieces of farmland in a desirable, semirural section of Bradenton.
Neal Communities of Lakewood Ranch made deals even though the density of a proposed housing development on one of those parcels is under challenge in a Florida appeals court.
The company bought about 70 acres from Robinson Farms in two separate transactions Jan. 6, according to county property records. One of the two parcels, about 19 acres at 9523 17th Ave. N.W., has been the subject of a zoning and density fight for six years. Last March, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet serving as the state's administration commission approved Neal's plans to build 38 homes there.
A neighbor, farmer Greg Geraldson, filed an appeal last fall with the Second District Court of Appeals, asking that the zoning, approved by the Manatee County Board of Commissioners in 2013,
be struck down.
The court has been briefed by attorneys on both sides of the issue, but has not yet rendered a decision.
The second property, about 50 acres off 103rd Street N.W., would bring 50 homes to the area. To be called The Estuary at Robinson Preserve, the subdivision will be surrounded on three sides by Manatee County's Robinson Preserve. Pat Neal, chairman of Neal Communities, said the homes built there will share floor plans with Wisteria Park, a subdivision the company built previously in Northwest Bradenton.
"We hope to break ground in May 2016 and open homes in November 2016," Neal said.
Building on the 17th Avenue Northwest site could prove more complicated. Neal's plans to develop the land, which is currently a tree farm, have been in the works in one form or another since 1997. Designated for one dwelling unit per acre and as a coastal evacuation area on the county's future land use map, the land was twice rezoned to three dwellings per acre by the board of commissioners. Two neighboring residents, former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola and Geraldson, filed a legal challenge to block the rezones.
Pierola and Geraldson successfully challenged an earlier, 105-home subdivision Neal Communities proposed for 28 acres at the site.
Last July, administrative law Judge Bram Canter found that the higher density failed to comply with the county's comprehensive land use plan. The ruling did not sway the governor and his cabinet, which stated the county has the right to make changes to that plan.
Geraldson's attorney, Thomas Reese of St. Petersburg, said his appeal of the administration commission's decision keys not only on Canter's ruling, but a similar decision several years earlier by another administrative law judge.
"I thought it was a good opinion," Reese said. "I thought it was pretty clear cut."
Reese said he and his client hope the three-judge appellate court panel will uphold the work previous judges have done. If they prevail, Neal will be limited to building one home per acre.
Neal said his company will build on the land regardless of whether the county's ordinance is overturned by the appellate court. If the higher-density zoning stands, Neal Communities will build homes there similar to those in Wisteria Park. If it doesn't, he said the company's luxury division, Neal Signature Homes, will build fewer, but larger and more expensive "executive homes" on the property.
The company does not have a start date for construction at the site.
Neal Communities sold a company record 1,107 homes in 2015, including 93 Neal Signature Homes.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.