Special Reports

Despite obstacles, home approvals rise in 2006

MANATEE - Despite de facto moratoriums, the threat of artificial growth limits and a housing slump, developers still managed to get more homes approved in 2006 than in the previous year.

Manatee County, Bradenton and Palmetto approved preliminary plans for almost 11,000 houses, townhouses, condominiums and apartments last year, according to a Bradenton Herald review. That's almost 1,500 more than in 2005, when developers and landowners submitted plans for a record 22,000-plus new homes.

The increase in approvals came despite a backlash to the 2005 boom that included two limited development freezes and consideration of a county ordinance controlling the rate of growth.

But the freezes quickly melted and the county's growth-cap flirtation was fleeting, muting their impact on approvals.

Last year's higher number of approvals means little, insists county Commissioner Joe McClash, the board's chairman last year and a frequent critic of excessive growth.

"It's not what we approve, it's the demand of people to buy homes," he said. "You're not seeing a whole lot of homes being generated by these approvals. It was a concern of mine that we were in an artificial market and many of the projects we were approving would never make it, economics-wise. But we can't say no (to projects) based on economic reasons."

But commissioners did - twice - because of roads last year.

In June, they deferred approval of three residential projects because of delays in widening State Road 64. By the end of the year, all three projects had won the board's blessing after developers agreed to financially help the county get the road work started sooner.

Then, in November, commissioners again cited roads in postponing consideration of any proposed projects in the area between Palmetto and Ellenton. That freeze ended in mid-January, when the board approved a 228-unit affordable-housing project.

McClash advocated both freezes, as well as a "rate-of-growth" ordinance that would have placed caps on the number of homes built annually. Other commissioners quickly killed the idea as counter-productive.

In all, the county approved 8,413 homes last year - about 200 more than in 2005, the Herald's analysis showed. Bradenton approved 2,472 homes last year, most in the 1,373-home Villages of Glen Creek project on the city's eastern side.

Most of last year's approved projects were proposed in 2004, just as the development boom was taking off, or earlier. That means even more could be approved in 2007 as 2005's record number of proposed homes move through the review process, which typically takes 18 to 24 months.

But McClash said he doesn't see that happening, saying developers are slowing down or scaling back their plans to ride out the housing downturn.

"How realistic was it for people to expect 22,000 units to be proposed and sold so fast? Not very," he said.

One developer agreed, noting Manatee usually can handle no more than 4,000 to 5,000 new homes a year - in good times.

"It (2005) was crazy," said Dan Barwick, chief executive of de Morgan Communities. "It was a carryover from the go-go days when people carried off what they could regardless of what the market was doing. Now, sanity has settled in."