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Developer on the Defense

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  • | 6:00 p.m. August 25, 2006
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Developer on the Defense

Commercial Real Estate by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

The developer behind one of the Gulf Coast's biggest projects fights back against criticism from elected officials that the firm doesn't do enough to build roads. How about nearly $80 million dollars worth over the last 15 years?

Consider Rex Jensen officially on the defense. The president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developers behind the massive Lakewood Ranch project in eastern Manatee County, says he's been forced into that position after taking a verbal barrage of criticism about how the company, according to critics, did not plan ahead for road improvement construction to go along with the 6,000-plus homes it has built.

In a public meeting earlier this month, and in other recent statements, Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash said developers, including SMR, have used loopholes in county rules to build before figuring out road concurrency to go along with the projects. According to McClash, the result has been crippling to the area's already clogged arteries. Specifically, State Roads 64 and 70, a pair of east-west roads with Interstate 75 exits, linger as traffic nightmares.

McClash and other commissioners went as far as throwing around the idea of a building moratorium at one point, although no official building ban was voted on or put in place. Still, any major action the county takes on the development community would be "devastating," says Jensen, who adds that SMR seems to be singled out, likely because it has been one of the biggest and most successful developers in the last decade of growth.

In his first public comments since an Aug. 3 Manatee County Commission meeting, Jensen spoke with the Review about what SMR has been doing about roads and what it can do in the future. It is an issue that developers all along the Gulf Coast must deal with when politicians inevitably look to shift the infrastructure burden.

Jensen isn't sitting idle. While county officials figure out what actions they will take leading up to a public meeting on the issue Sept. 5, he has started referring all inquires for office space at Lakewood Ranch to the Sarasota County side of the development.

"I'm not going to show Manatee County property until this settles," Jensen says. "I don't want [companies] to get halfway down the relocation process and have this stuff happen. If Manatee County wants to make these kinds of unreasonable proposals, we'll talk about them, but I will not trumpet Manatee County as a reasonable place to do business, because it isn't.

Here are experts from the interview with Jensen:

What message are you getting from the Manatee County Commission coming out with such strong, vocal criticism of SMR, and what it should be doing for road construction in eastern Manatee County?

What I hear from the County Commission in general is a legitimate message, a legitimate plea of help. We've been saying there's been a crisis brewing for some number of years. I'm glad McClash has finally woken up to the fact that there's a problem, but I'm very unhappy with the way he's attempting to focus the problem in ways that are unproductive to the solution.

In my opinion, Joe McClash doesn't speak for all county officials. And not all county officials try to win consensus with a two-by-four.

Many county officials are easy to work with, good to deal with and understand what partnership means as opposed to punching bags. McClash apparently doesn't understand that.

Why didn't both SMR and county officials see this problem looming, as a boom in residential, commercial and retail development in East County has been going on for nearly a decade?

Seventeen years ago, Manatee County actually had a road network that if it had built, would have very well served all the development that was planned. They had a master plan, a forward-thinking vision, but never lived up to it.

They went ahead and approved all of these projects. Ever since Joe McClash has been on the County Commission, there have been multiple projects approved including Heritage Harbor, Greenfield Plantation and the Waterleaf project. I don't recall SMR having approved any one of those. At least if I had that power, it has been an astonishingly well-kept secret and I could have used it for much better purposes.

They did that without looking at the network. There has been no advanced planning since then by Manatee County. Roads from the plan were removed that would have provided some connectivity. The county has sat with its thumb in its ear and not taken care of business and Joe McClash has been a leader in taking the county down that path.

The roads that have been built out of this plan have been built largely by people like us.

What specific roads or plans has Manatee County failed to follow through with?

The county had a developer under contract to build a [connecting] bridge, near Interstate 75 and Lakewood Ranch, but through totally ignoring the situation, that contract lapsed. Well, the developer would have built that bridge on their own dime, but now the public, with non-existent dollars, will have to build this bridge someday.

If we had this bridge today, you would have another way past I-75 if it broke down. You would have cars that would not have to go on I-75 at all. We don't have it because the county hasn't followed its own plan.

What about the specific accusations from McClash and other county commissioners that SMR failed to deliver on promises to build and improve heavily congested State Road 64?

Our closest house to State Road 64 is 3.5 miles away from State Road 64. How on earth is it Lakewood Ranch residents that are causing the problems on 64? Is it not the people who live on 64 who are using 64? I'm not saying they don't have a right to; they paid their impact fees. The thing is, they are stuck in traffic twice a day and they have nothing to show for paying these exorbitant impact fees.

For the last 14 years, the he county has taken the taxes that come from the growth [in East County] and funded solutions to problems for the western part of the county.

The people out here have paid their dues, are paying their dues and will continue to pay their dues, and we don't mind that. What we do mind is being made the scapegoat for county mismanagement and three-card Monte when it comes to tax dollars. That's the game that's been played for 14 years and that's got to stop.

What can SMR do better when it comes to building and improving roads?

The building community does have one or two faults of our own and they happen to be severe. We undertake a lot of strategy to avoid triggering road improvements. And I don't think that's healthy. Because what that does is it brings us up to the precipice, and builds no bridge across it. And I think the development community needs to wake up and spot that and work with the county and DOT to pay what is a fair share.

And when we built some of the road infrastructure here we didn't know we'd be successful. We built two-lane roads where maybe we should have built four. We became successful and then we had to widen them just pretty much after we finished. That's not good planning and were learning from that. We're trying to catch up to our own success.

What can be done to solve the road-congestion problem?

We can use the incremental taxes that come from growth to help in this equation. That's a piece. We are not going to find a single solution to solve this whole problem.

This problem of road congestion is a very big problem. But county roads themselves are not that bad. The roads that do exist are reasonably concurrent. The ones that are [problematic] happen to be state roads. We need to have a better mechanism for funding of state roads, rather than raiding the transportation trust funds each year.

This problem is so big that it will not be solved by the county, it will not be solved by the development community or probably the Legislature alone. I do believe firmly that if we all work together we can solve it, but by working together, we have to have leaders who are not insult artists. We need consensus builders.

At A Glance



SMR, the developer behind Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, recently released a report of road and transportation improvements the company has been behind. The report was a response to criticism from county officials that the developer has not done enough road improvements to match its building of homes and offices. Improvements include:

State Road 70: $2.5 million

University Parkway: $14.2 million

Lorraine Road: $15.1 million

Lakewood Ranch Blvd: $20.2 million

Misc. other road projects: $26.7 million

Total: $78.7 million


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