LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Even though Edgewater ranks as Lakewood Ranch's smallest village with only 326 homes, and just three neighborhoods -- Cove, Pointe, and Sound, plus two condominiums, Moorings and Watercrest -- its residents have played a key role in the emergence of the community.
Edgewater also occupies a key bit of real estate, nearly encircling 153-acre Lake Uihlein, the largest of Lakewood Ranch's many lakes. The other notable neighbors on Lake Uihlein are Main Street and Town Hall.
Edgewater resident Don O'Leary earned the sobriquet "unofficial mayor of Lakewood Ranch" for his activism in causes ranging from fire protection to feeding the hungry and whether the community should incorporate.
While O'Leary may have set the standard for citizen involvement at Lakewood Ranch, many other Edgewater residents also have gotten involved, in a political, community or social way.
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But whether they choose to lead an active life, or just live quietly in the gated, maintenance-free village, residents describe the community atmosphere as peaceful, just what they were seeking.
"It's like your own little island when you come in here," said Jim Jurek, formerly of Buffalo, N.Y. "We have formed a lot of bonds here."
Massachusetts native Charlene Betourney had been vacationing on Siesta Key since 1987 and discovered Edgewater in 1999.
"My husband wanted community, a nearby hospital and golf," Betourney said. "Edgewater had everything. It had the amenities and the service. It is really a vibrant community."
Lyn Simensen moved here from Worcester, Pa., and found Edgewater an immediately welcoming community.
"We weren't in the house more than a few minutes when Charlene popped by to say hello," Simensen said.
Both women quickly went from being Edgewater newbies to active residents.
Simensen, a church stewardship professional and administrator before moving to Lakewood Ranch, is now in her second year on the Edgewater Cove board, chairs the neighborhood social committee, and is active in the book club and women's club.
Betourney served six years on her neighborhood board and is now co-chair of the CEVA (Country Club/Edgewater Village Association) landscape committee.
"You can be as active or as inactive as you want," Simensen said.
Because Edgewater is small (it has three neighborhoods compared to 33 in the neighboring Country Club), it is a place where one resident knows another.
"When you walk through here saying hello, people get to know one another," Betourney said.
Even more so for anyone who happens to be walking a cute puppy.
"Bailie is entertainment for the whole neighborhood as we take our walks," Simensen said of her inquisitive 9-month-old golden retriever.
Residents say that the developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, set the tone for encouraging community at Lakewood Ranch.
"SMR was in charge when we moved here," Betourney said. "SMR and the districts encouraged people to form groups or join groups."
Residents laud Lakewood Ranch Community Activities and its director, Lori Basilone, for helping foster a sense of community among residents who essentially come from virtually everywhere else.
"They are really doing a great job and are always interested in any activity that you like," said Ron Grimwood, chairman of the Edgewater Cove neighborhood.
Having a Community Activities director helps residents develop their ideas and provides support for setting up new clubs or organizations, Betourney said.
Just as with any group of people, there can be disagreements at Lakewood Ranch, too, such as the fierce fight over whether the community should incorporate. After years of study and debate, residents finally decided in a straw poll in 2011 that they weren't ready for cityhood, especially during a great recession. Nearly 57 percent of those voting in the straw poll voted against incorporation.
Although not on that same scale, there was also disagreement over Lakewood Ranch Town Hall.
Betourney served on the town hall building committee and remembers the controversy.
Some thought a town hall was unnecessary, while others thought the proposed building was too small or too large,
Now that it is built, it's hard to imagine Lakewood Ranch functioning without a town hall, she said.
Not only does Town Hall host meetings by district supervisors, but it serves as a center of community activities and club meetings.
Betourney believes planners got the Town Hall building just right, the design providing substance, presence and charm.
"Everything there was carefully planned. The place is busy all the time," Betourney said.
On a larger scale, residents marvel at the growth of Lakewood Ranch, and how much more there is to come.
"It really is speeding up," Grimwood said.
Yet, Edgewater remains a quiet oasis.
That's what attracted Rick Montgomery and his family to the Edgewater Pointe neighborhood, when he escaped the "rat race" in southern California and accepted a job in Sarasota in 2002.
The Montgomerys felt that Edgewater would be a safe place to raise their young daughters, and it would be convenient to his new job in Sarasota.
Better yet, his company relocated to the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park, and he was able to walk to work.
Children in Edgewater, depending on their age, typically attend Lakewood Ranch High School, Nolan Middle School or Willis Elementary.
But some may attend other schools, including the nearby Out-of-Door Academy,
The Montgomerys believed that Saint Stephen's Episcopal School in downtown Bradenton was the best fit for them. Their oldest daughter has since graduated from Saint Stephen's and is attending State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota.
The growth at Lakewood Ranch has only served to make it a more convenient community for the Montgomerys.
"We had to do a lot of traveling when we first moved here for a restaurant or a theater," he said.
The satisfaction with the Edgewater community means that there are few homes on the market.
Don O'Leary, a retired 30-year New York firefighter, came to Florida with his wife Audrey, and initially lived in Sarasota's Meadows community.
The O'Learys bought their Edgewater lot in 1999. It was the first one sold in the village.
"Residents kept asking Schroeder-Manatee Ranch when there would be a fire station at Lakewood Ranch," O'Leary said.
John Clarke, then the CEO and president of SMR, dubbed O'Leary the unofficial mayor of Lakewood Ranch, impressed by how involved the new resident was.
"I got involved in everything," O'Leary said.
Eventually, O'Leary would serve seven years as a community development supervisor, and was also president of the Lakewood Ranch Civic Association. Most notably, the association sponsored the investigation into whether Lakewood Ranch should incorporate.
There was also a notable flap when a former town hall manager refused his request to place a food collection barrel in the lobby.
O'Leary took his displeasure public and soon had many businesses and organizations clamoring for barrels.
Since Eva Rey became the new executive director of the Inter-District Authority, a food collection barrel has been welcome at Town Hall whenever needed.
O'Leary also started a Lakewood Ranch Senior Citizens Club that meets at Town Hall on Tuesdays to enjoy a guest speaker and food served by Meals on Wheels.
O'Leary accepted an appointment to the East Manatee Fire Rescue District two years ago when a commissioner died. At that time, he resigned as a community development district supervisor. O'Leary has since been elected in his own right as a fire commissioner. Today, there are several fire stations at Lakewood Ranch and the nearby area.
Not surprising, considering his involvement in the community, O'Leary, now 79, received the very first C. John A. Clarke Humanitarian Award in 2006, as selected by the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund.
The names of the annual recipients of the award are inscribed on a plaque at Main Street.
O'Leary was also recipient of the first Sandies Award from the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance.
He remains plugged into community activities and happy with the decision to settle in Edgewater.
"It's a quiet, comfortable neighborhood," O'Leary said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.