EAST MANATEE -- Developers are lining up to get some huge projects approved as the Fort Hamer Bridge construction nears completion by early 2017.
In fact, the argument could be made that North Manatee, rather than Lakewood Ranch, is the current hotspot for development in Manatee County.
In the area known as North River -- Parrish, northeastern Palmetto and beyond -- dwelling units already approved or pending approval for construction total 23,095. That compares to 17,958 for the greater Lakewood Ranch area, according to a report prepared by John Osborne, Manatee County planning official.
Developers in unincorporated southwest Manatee County, which is already largely urbanized, by contrast have requested approvals for 2,799 homes.
If all those homes are built in unincorporated areas north, southeast and west -- not a sure thing given boom and bust cycles and changing market conditions -- Manatee County could be looking at 96,474 new residents.
"The great thing about the Fort Hamer Bridge is that it will provide another north-south road for the Parrish area," Osborne said.
For an area like North River, which is served primarily by two-lane roads, that new connector could be a two-edged sword.
The county lacks the resources to build all the required infrastructure of new development -- particularly road improvements to handle the traffic, and schools to support all the new families.
Before the 2011 Community Planning Act, local governments could require developers to do substantially more to improve roads in areas they were going to impact with new neighborhoods.
Schroeder-Manatee Ranch shouldered a huge part of the burden to improve roads serving its master-planned community at Lakewood Ranch, including six-laning State Road 70 and widening Lorraine Road, Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and other streets.
Now, even with a gas tax and impact fees, there won't be enough to make the serious improvements needed to avoid gridlock in North River.
"We have a roadway expansion plan, but without the developers' assistance, that's a tough thing to realize," Osborne said. "When you look at the improvements we'll need, there is not enough money to build them all.
"Every jurisdiction in Florida is scratching their heads right now," he added. "We're all in the same boat."
The county can still require developers to make access improvements to their new neighborhoods, but improving the roads is another issue.
"We can't require them to do that anymore," he said.
Growth management is also tougher in North River than in Lakewood Ranch, as a myriad of developers are at work on a quilt of neighborhoods throughout north Manatee County.
In contrast, the 50-square-mile Lakewood Ranch community has had a single developer who was highly motivated to meet concurrency benchmarks to win county approvals so it could attract homebuyers and businesses alike.
Snapshot of development
In North River, a massive development of regional impact, Parrish Lakes, would bring 3,300 homes to 1,155 acres south of Moccasin Wallow Road.
Then there's the more modest North River Land LV, to be built on 69 acres, which would help complete a patchwork of developments along Fort Hamer Road itself.
North River Land LV, a Carlos Beruff project, would be located at 2700 Fort Hamer Road, intersecting with Mulholland Road.
Under plans pending review by Manatee County Building and Development Services, Beruff could build 156 semi-detached, single-family homes and 32,670 square-feet of commercial space.
The two projects, Parrish Lakes and North River Land LV, represent just the tip of the iceberg for development planned for Parrish and North River. Other developments proposed or under construction include Taylor Morrison's Esplanade at Artisan Lakes, with 2,802 homes; Pat Neal's The Villages of Amazon South, with 1,999 homes; John Neal's Dakin Family Homestead, with 1,107 units; and John and Michael Neal's Summer Woods, with 562 units.
In 2014, Pat Neal was Manatee County's top builder with about 870 homes sold.
Lakewood Ranch continues to roll out significant projects as well. Its Lakewood Centre project north of SR 70 is approved for 4,683 residential units, and Del Webb at Lakewood Ranch has stirred interest with its active living community of more than 1,000 homes south of SR 70.
Schools at critical mass
Manatee County School District officials have expressed interest in restoring impact fees as a means to help pay for new schools, such as a proposed high school in North Manatee.
"It's going to be very difficult for us to meet our needs," school board member Bob Gause has said.
The district is currently operating at 90 percent capacity overall, with a total student capacity of 45,304 compared to 40,601 students enrolled late last year, according to a data provided by the district through a Bradenton Herald public records request.
Looking collectively at the district's six traditional high schools, the district is over capacity by 203 students. Lakewood Ranch has 519 more students than it can handle and Braden River has 392 more than the school was built to handle. Southeast High School, the enrollment for which was affected by opening Braden River and Lakewood Ranch high schools, has the most availability, running at 79 percent capacity with 389 open spots.
The district's 10 middle schools are operating at 87 percent capacity, with four schools over capacity and one school labeled as near capacity. Nolan Middle School, with 1,130 students enrolled as of Oct. 17, is operating at 122 percent of capacity. The school has 206 more students than it was built to hold.
The other over-capacity middle schools are Haile Middle School, Buffalo Creek and Lee Middle School. King Middle School is considered near-capacity, and is 96 percent filled. Harllee Middle is operating at 41 percent capacity.
Six of the district's 33 elementary schools are over-capacity and five are considered near capacity. Virgil Mills, Prine, Moody, Bayshore, Freedom and Braden River are over capacity. Williams, Willis, McNeal, Kinnan, Bashaw and Miller are all considered near-capacity.
The pace of building
There has never been another year in Manatee County like 2005.
It was not only one of the most super-heated hurricane seasons in decades, but it was the zenith of the housing market. In 2005, construction of 5,000 dwelling units was approved, and certificates of occupancy were issued for 4,000.
After 2005, the housing market went into a death spiral, bottoming out in 2009.
But the market has steadily rebounded since 2009, averaging 1,800 homes per year constructed in the past decade.
Manatee County's population is expected to grow from 344,600 in 2015 to 405,300 in 2025, according to the Bureau of Economic & Business Research.
How to pay for the new roads and other infrastructure requirements is an open question.
"We are in a real pickle," county commissioner Robin DiSabatino has stressed.
Manatee County staff is now reviewing the Parrish Lakes project to complete their comments on details of required transportation mitigation and timing.
Beruff's North River Land project is also being evaluated by county staff before going to the county commission for approval.
Beruff said he would like to introduce North River Land to buyers starting in 2016, with homes selling for the low $200,000s.
"We want to have the flexibility, depending on the demand," he said.
-- Meghin Delaney, Herald education reporter, contributed to this report.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.