How to pay for Manatee road improvements? Share the cost with developers, officials say

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Developer, former Florida Senator, a look at Pat Neal's career to date.
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Developer, former Florida Senator, a look at Pat Neal's career to date.

The upcoming North River Ranch project is poised to become a planned community set to rival Lakewood Ranch out east, but Manatee County officials have just one problem — the roads aren’t ready.

The Board of County Commissioners notes that nearly 6,000 news homes would mean much more traffic traversing the project area around Buckeye Road and Moccasin Wallow Road just west of U.S. 301. Neal Communities’ latest development will be built on over 2,300 acres of land, with Fort Hamer Road running north to south through the property.

Plans for the community, which is set to feature an extensive trail system, commercial and single-family and multi-family homes, will also include access points along Moccasin Wallow and Buckeye, which is a serious cause for concern, according Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace, who represents the area.

“(Moccasin Wallow) is a two-lane road with no lights, no shoulders, and that looks good compared to Buckeye Road, which some people are going to access from the north,” Trace pointed out. “Buckeye is in bad shape.”

Frank Domingo, a traffic engineer with Stantec, told commissioners that their team is already working on relevant upgrades, including turn lane improvements at local access points and various traffic light installations within the development area.

“There’s a lot going on,” said Domingo.

On top of that, there are also federal studies being done on a possible widening of U.S. 301 all the way to the Hillsborough County line.

“Commissioner Trace, we are entirely respectful of these questions. We don’t think our problems should solve every problem of the world, but we’re solving a lot of them and we’re doing that in close cooperation with your staff and in advance,” said Ed Vogler, an attorney representing Neal Land & Neighborhoods.

Without meaningful upgrades to the number of lanes and lighting, Trace said those improvements won’t make much of a difference.

“We’re going to have beautiful intersections connected to a county road,” she said.

An artistic rendering depicts the expected design for some of the townhomes to be included in the North River Ranch master plan community by Neal Land & Neighborhoods between Moccasin Wallow Road and Buckeye Road just west of U.S. 301. Provided

Commissioner Betsy Benac said she saw the lack of investment in road improvements as a safety issue for Parrish residents.

“The fact of the matter is that we are not keeping up with the development of county roads,” said Benac, an at-large member of the commission. “It’s a public safety issue that we are not dealing with.”

“We’ve got emails, comments (about) 5,000 units coming (and) no planned road improvements. I need to have that responded to,” she added. “We cannot sit here as county commissioners and say that’s correct to approve 5,000 units without road improvements.”

At the same time, Benac said her “eyes have been opened” to the significant cost that comes with planning county roads, due to recent — and expensive — right-of-way acquisitions for the 44th Avenue East extension.

Lots of changes are underway in Parrish and the North River area where 25,000 new homes and 5 million-square-feet of retail and commercial space are planned.

So what’s the answer?

A deal that the county has entered into to before to slash the price of road construction, Vogler said. Based on a December 2017 reimbursement agreement, Neal has agreed to build three segments of Fort Hamer Road from U.S. 301 through Erie Road to connect to Moccasin Wallow.

“You’re funding a lot of that. We’re funding some of that. We’re bringing prices that are effectively negotiated through that arrangement, and if you wanted to enter into that arrangement with us for Moccasin Wallow or any other road, it’d be fine,” Vogler said.

That kind of private-public partnership is an opportunity to save serious dollars, commissioners agreed.

“We know that you guys can build a road cheaper than we can, and I don’t think that’s right, but it’s the facts,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh told Neal representatives. “That is something I think we need to start taking very seriously and looking at because it behooves all of us. It doesn’t help them to sell homes if the roads are not in good enough condition for the new residents to be on, if they’re not safe for school children. We’re all in this together.”

In a presentation to board members, developer Pat Neal reviewed previous reimbursement deals he has worked on with officials in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Some of those projects include the construction of portions of Honore Avenue and the Fort Hamer Bridge, which both saw Manatee County save millions.

“The full capacity of Neal is working to solve the problem,” Neal said.

According to the most recent iteration of the capital improvement plan, the county is already set to spend more than $250 million on road improvements all across Manatee. But in order for Neal, or any other developer to enter a cost-saving partnership with the Board of County Commissioners, board members would need to make the necessary adjustments.

Commissioners hinted that it would be an ideal solution, but did not take action on the move at a meeting earlier this month.