EAST MANATEE -- There are no panthers in Panther Ridge.
Oh, there's an occasional bobcat sighting. Bald eagles, hawks, foxes, ducks and deer are abundant. If you listen closely at night, you can sometimes even hear the coyotes.
Just no panthers.
"Haven't seen a panther yet," said Paul Sullivan, who bought his home on 10 acres there about five years ago. "You can quote me on that."
While the famed Florida panther may not roam the area, it's horses that may best symbolize Panther Ridge. The community, comprised of about 800 homes on 3,200 acres on both sides of State Road 70, is billed as "equestrian friendly." and many of the homes that sit on its spacious acre-plus lots include stables.
Fifteen miles of trails provide a physical and communal link between Panther Ridge's nine neighborhoods -- The Highlands, Grand Oaks, The Preserve, The Trails, Bridle Creek, The Forest, The Ranches, Foxwood and The Pointe.
Sullivan, a pilot for Delta, serves as president of the homeowner's association at The Ranches. He built a barn on his property and
keeps five horses. He and his wife, Gayle, often saddle up and meet up with friends from the neighborhood to go trail riding. It's one of the aspects that sets Panther Ridge apart from other recent developments that have popped up in East Manatee since Panther Ridge opened in 1995.
"You have country living not far from civilization," Sullivan said.
Pam Muller, who's lived in her home in The Ranches for about 12 years, has more than a dozen horses and ponies in her stable and provides riding lessons and camps for kids. Muller hosts riders of a wide range of abilities at her home, many from Panther Ridge and some from as far away as Port Charlotte.
"If they want to be competitive, they come here," Muller said. "This is a good energy place."
Muller was a competitive rider growing up in Long Island and helped turn her 20-year-old daughter, Lauren, into a champion jumper at last year's prestigious Marshall & Sterling Insurance League National Finals Horse Show. So, she knows horses, and she knows she's in the right community.
"Most people that move out here moved out here because they want this."
When Panther Ridge was being developed in the mid-1990s, Lakewood Ranch was still mostly an idea, and East Manatee was largely undeveloped.
"You could drive from Panther Ridge to downtown St. Petersburg without a traffic light," said Frank Buskirk, who developed the property with his company, Buskirk, Summers & Gravely Properties Group.
The land that would become Panther Ridge had belonged since the 1930s to the Ruth Mott Foundation, created by wealthy Michigan industrialist Charles Stewart Mott for his wife.
"It was all undisturbed, native property," said Buskirk, a Manatee native. "It was just beautiful. The water running through the area is just as nice as it was 50 years ago."
Buskirk and his partners worked to protect that environment through deed restrictions and wetland conservation. The company partnered with Manatee County to create the first Planned Development Agriculture amendment to the comprehensive plan to preserve open spaces alongside the large home sites.
BSG also recognized the growth coming to the area. They closely followed every move of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., developers of Lakewood Ranch, which would be bringing much of the infrastructure, amenities and jobs needed to make East Manatee a more viable place to live. Panther Ridge would be a "complementary, but not a competing product," said Jeff Gravely, one of the principals in BSG.
Early buyers at Panther Ridge generally weren't coming from west Bradenton or Sarasota, according to Buskirk, nor were they retirees. Some were affluent, of course, building their dream estates on lots up to 20 acres in size. Baseball legend Carlton Fisk, of Boston Red Sox fame, is among Panther Ridge's residents. But many others were upper middle class, working professionals and families who wanted to live in a rural setting but could still easily commute to their jobs or go shopping or dining in Lakewood Ranch.
"I think early on we were not a suburb of Bradenton, but a suburb of Lakewood Ranch," Buskirk said. "Lakewood Ranch was our town center. The interstate became a Main Street."
Today, a decade after BSG sold out the last phase of the community, Panther Ridge residents say they've appreciated the growth of East Manatee but still enjoy some isolation.
"It's gotten nicer and nicer," said Jesse Carr Jr., a lifelong Manatee resident who built his home in The Forest in 1999 with his wife, Robin.
"You don't have to drive as far to get to the grocery store or restaurants. Everything's a lot closer. But there's still a country feel."
Ronnie DeWitt remembers the community's early days. She was one of the original sales associates for Panther Ridge before buying her own home there.
"We didn't have Lakewood Ranch back in the day" said DeWitt, now a real estate agent who handles many Panther Ridge properties. "There were little signs saying Publix is coming, and everybody laughed and said, 'Yeah, right.'"
Panther Ridge endured the same hardships as the rest of the Florida real estate market in 2007-09, DeWitt said, but today's buyers are still attracted to the neighborhood. Earlier this year, she completed what she called one of the biggest sales Panther Ridge has ever seen, for more than $1.5 million.
"We find lots of people from (Lakewood Ranch) Country Club want that same feel, but their kids want a pony."
Carr, who's also a Realtor with Premier Sotheby's International Realty, has seen the same real estate rebound in Panther Ridge.
"It's starting to come back," he said. "Values are on an upswing now."
Even as many of the original residents have moved out, the neighborhood has stayed connected, residents say, whether it's annual get-togethers at Panther Park, neighbors pitching in to repair stables or just watching out for one another's properties.
"Do we all get together and go go trick or treating?" said Pam Muller, during a break between horseback riding lessons for two girls, ages 6 and 9. "No. Is there a sense of community, like if anybody needs one another? Yes. Absolutely."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.