MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Mark VanDeRee’s corner of eastern Manatee County is a slice of ‘Old Florida’ that impresses guests with its quaint, quiet charm.
“I love to fish. I love to hunt,” he said. “I love to have visitors come in from out of state, and I take them out here, and they say, ‘Wow, we had no idea that Florida was so beautiful.’”
But, to VanDeRee’s dismay, the area he calls home — near the intersection of Dam Road and State Road 64 — is transforming.
As more and more people move to the area from Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and even California, home builder Neal Communities is in the process of designing and building a new community, Palm Grove, that will include a collection of at least 706 townhouses, paired villas, and single-family homes on a 310-acre site just north of State Road 64 and west of Dam Road.
In early March, the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners rezoned the land in a 6-1 vote.
This week, the commission will consider sending an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan to the state for review. If the amendment is ultimately approved by commissioners, it would allow Neal Communities to build even more homes on a portion of the site. The change would increase Palm Grove’s total count of homes to 930.
It’s a troubling amendment to Mark VanDeRee, who heads up the Waterline Road Preservation Group, and Alisha Fretz, of the recently-formed group, Preserve Our Wildlife Environment & Resources (POWER).
“Eastern Manatee County doesn’t want overdevelopment,” she said.
The two are concerned that the development could have an impact on the local wildlife, waterways, and Lake Manatee State Park. The project’s eastern border will be just 15 feet from state park property.
“There will be a sense of encroachment almost,” said Fretz. “I think there’s too much, too close.”
Their concern, though, is greater than Palm Grove alone. Their right is the dilemma facing many undeveloped corners of Florida as the state grows: the tug-of-war between development and preservation.
Both want Manatee County to find a better balance and set more natural areas aside as the county grows.
“That’s the trick with any development. That’s the trick with life. You don’t let the parasite kill the host, right?” said VanDeRee. “There has to be a balance attained. Has to be. It’s not sustainable. It’s not good for Florida. It’s not good for me and you. It’s not good for the grandkids. It’s not good for the critters that live out here.”
Debra Woithe, the Environmental Lands Program Manager for Manatee County, believes the county is making an adequate stride toward more preservation.
The county is now collecting an ad-valorem tax — approved by 71% of voters in a 2020 referendum — to buy up land for preservation. The process of implementing the program is still in progress. The county expects to accrue about $6 million in revenue annually for the purpose of land acquisition.
“Anyone can nominate a property for conservation acquisition. There’s a form on the web page,” said Woithe. “We look at the ecological value, the rarity of the species — wildlife and plants — that are there, the ability to protect or improve water quality, and also a connectedness, and that gives us an opportunity for wildlife corridors.”
According to Woithe, the county started reviewing about 10 properties and will prioritize them in the coming months. Meanwhile, three seats will soon be vacant on the county’s Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee (ELMAC), and Woithe said the county is looking for volunteers. One will need to come from a banking/real estate background, one will need a background in outdoor sports, and the final should be someone who is a member of an environmental group.
Despite those efforts, VanDeRee and Fretz are not convinced. They worry the land acquisitions won’t happen fast enough or often enough to outweigh the county’s rapid growth.
“It’s just an indescribably beautiful place, and I hate to see that go away because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” VanDeRee said. “Look 20-30 years down the road. Is it going to be wall-to-wall concrete or is there going to be some natural beauty left? And that’s up to the commissioners.”