MANATEE -- Lifelong resident Whiting Preston's vision to transform his family's West Bradenton farmland into an urban village is closer to becoming a reality.
On Thursday, the Manatee County Commission unanimously approved the general development plan for Lake Flores, an approximately 1,300-acre mixed-use walkable community. The commission approved rezoning the area to planned development mixed use.
Commissioners Larry Bustle and Charles Smith were absent.
Development plans filed with the county May 29, 2014, call for 6,500 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail space, 2 million square feet of commercial space and 500 hotel rooms.
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"Clearly there is a highlighted need for investment on this side of town," said Preston, president of Manatee Fruit Co. "From an economic standpoint, this is very positive for Manatee County and the area."
The project, which has an estimated 20-year buildout, will transform a swath of farmland south of Cortez Road, east of 86th Street West, north of El Conquistador Parkway and west of IMG Academy.
During more than three hours of discussion about Lake Flores, which will have about 374 acres of open space, many West Bradenton residents said it will benefit the neglected west side of town.
John Rice, a Manatee County business owner, called Lake Flores "a class act."
"Lake Flores will not create more traffic. It will create more solutions that our western community desperately needs," he said. "The development of Lake Flores would absolutely bring further interest and development to West Bradenton and bring it back to its glory days for generations to come."
South County resident Melton Little said the area isn't getting any new life and it needs Lake Flores.
"This to me isn't a game changer for South County," he said. "It is a life preserver. We are going to die if we don't have this project or something like it."
Rick Fawley of Fawley Bryant Architecture of Bradenton called the project "unprecedented."
"All things change," he said. "This is a positive example of change."
Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Hoyle said the department supports the project.
"We are looking forward to providing quality service to those new citizens," he said.
Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., said Lake Flores can take West Bradenton from being an afterthought to a vibrant part of the community.
"Lake Flores development is the right development at the right time," she said.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who represents East Manatee County, said it is important for the eastern and western portions of the county to work together because they "need each other for our quality of life to improve."
"For me, it's important that, not just out east grows, but also West Bradenton, because if we are together in our success, what a county we have," Baugh said. "It is good for all of us. It's going to improve the quality of life for all of us."
The high praise for the infill development was mixed with some concerns about traffic and congestion.
Commissioner John Chappie, who represents West Bradenton, said the area has gotten old and tired.
"Traffic is still a major issue and a concern, especially on Cortez Road," Chappie said. "I'm concerned to the impact of surrounding neighborhoods. I don't want them to be collateral damage."
Commissioners asked project developers whether they would be open to having a parking lot in the development to park and take a bus to the beach.
Caleb Grimes, who represents the developer, said the "project would work with that very well."
"It helps make our community better as well," Grimes said. "The history of Manatee Fruit is to work with the county on a lot of things. We would absolutely continue to work with the county on things like that."
Calling Lake Flores a "tremendous opportunity," Chappie said they are not going to stop paying attention to their concerns.
"I think this is the best we are going to get," Chappie said. "This is the best that has come across since I've been in Manatee County and been in office. ... This is a beginning of opening up all kinds of doors of opportunities to take care a lot of the concerns and issues we have today that we wouldn't have if it was the typical urban sprawl development."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.