EAST MANATEE -- An aerial photograph of Braden Woods taken in 1988 shows a butterfly-shaped road looping through a forest south of State Road 70 and a young, still developing community.
Most importantly, it shows what developer Larry D'Urso calls Braden Woods' prime amenity: the land.
Lot sizes in the first four phases of Braden Woods were an acre or larger, and in the final two phases at least a half acre.
Most of the first buyers were young families who could either build right away or wait a few years.
With the large lot sizes, children would be able to play in their own backyards and not have to look for a park, D'Urso said.
There was little in the 1988 photo to signal Braden Woods was a messenger of the growth coming to East Manatee. Nor that it would one day become a sprawling neighborhood of nearly 500 homes on 600 acres between State Road 70 and Linger Lodge Road.
Braden Woods was D'Urso's second development to open east of Interstate 75 along State Road 70. The first was Braden Pines, and the third was River Club.
The development along State Road 70 got the attention of former East Manatee Fire District Chief Henry Sheffield. At the time, the department had only one station on State Road 64 to serve a 100-mile area.
When Sheffield sat down with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. officials to find out what they planned to do with all their land, his reaction was telling.
"Oh, my gosh," Sheffield said of the ambitious plans for Lakewood Ranch.
Sheffield negotiated a deal with D'Urso for a lot at 8800 State Road 70 near Braden Woods.
That became the second firehouse in the district, with four more added in subsequent years to serve the rapidly growing East Manatee population.
None of the communities that followed Braden Woods east of I-75 are quite like it.
Insurance executive Ron Reagan, former state representative and speaker pro tempore of the Florida House in 2009-10, has lived in Braden Woods for about 20 years.
"When we moved to Braden Woods, State Road 70 was still a two-lane road and Lakewood Ranch didn't have a shovel in the ground," Reagan said. "We had to drive 9 miles to get to the nearest Publix." Before moving to Braden Woods, the Reagans lived in Whitfield Estates near Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. They were trying to decide whether to move into a home on the river or into a golf course community.
Instead, they fell in love with the beauty of Braden Woods and its large lots.
"It's been a wonderful community, and we've enjoyed it out here," Reagan said.
When the Reagans talk about downsizing, they get objections from their children.
"Where would we stay if you downsize?" they ask.
Francis and Jeanette Wozniak have lived in Braden Woods about 26 years.
After the developer turned Braden Woods over to residents, Francis Wozniak got involved in the homeowners association, eventually serving as president for six years.
As he walked his black English cocker spaniel, Sadie, Wozniak pointed out pine trees aligned on some lots, a vestige of a pine farm that predated Braden Woods.
Passing neighbors wave, and neighboring dogs eye one another curiously from a distance, but don't bark.
"Sometimes we know the dogs better than the people," he said.
Braden Woods has become an oasis from the even more intensive East Manatee development that followed it.
Wozniak says Braden Woods residents have sought to reduce the impact of succeeding waves of development.
Under Wozniak's leadership, the Braden Woods Homeowners Association opposed development of a nearby shopping center in 1996.
Ten years later, Wozniak spoke out against Manatee County allowing a developer to destroy 6 acres of wetlands at River Club Park of Commerce in exchange for 173 donated acres of land on Manatee River near Fort Hamer.
Wozniak said the county should have protected the wetlands and bought the 173 acres on the river.
Former West Bradenton residents Tim and Maureen Hyden have lived in Braden Woods since 2003.
"We kept looking further east, and then one day we pulled in and got lost back here," said Hyden, now training and safety officer for East Manatee Fire Rescue District. "We were so fortunate. We saw how beautiful it was."
Their neighborhood is peaceful, too, with little traffic and an 8-acre lake, the largest at Braden Woods, in the backyard.
"Gracie," an anhinga or snakebird, is a frequent visitor, feasting on the plentiful fish in the lake.
"We have had two families of eagles raise their babies back here," said Maureen Hyden, a nurse who works at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
Residents often say they have been blessed with great neighbors.
Sherri Lynn McDermott has lived in Braden Woods for 14 years and is the neighbor of the Hydens.
The McDermotts moved from Sarasota to Braden Woods to be closer to her mother in Bradenton, and to give Sherri Lynn's husband, Robert, an easier commute. He was working in Tampa at the time, and the I-75 entrance was only minutes from Braden Woods.
Sherri Lynn home-schooled her three children for 15 years, and their home and grounds offered plenty of room for everyone.
The McDermott children, now all college students, are home for the summer.
"We have great neighbors. It usually starts with borrowing eggs or milk. There is a rule that if you're borrowing something, and baking cookies, you have to bring them some," Sherri Lynn said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.