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It takes a Team

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  • | 6:00 p.m. July 28, 2006
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It takes a Team

To ensure success on his latest project, developer Kimball Woodbury is getting by with a lot of help from his friends. He'll spend $5 million on prep-work with the varied crew before he even closes on the property.

COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE FOCUS by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier

Consider Kimball Woodbury's challenge.

The managing director of Coral Gables-based SouthStar Development Partners has contracted to buy 2,769 acres between Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres near Interstate 75 in Lee County.

But the land comes with multiple obstacles to development, which explains why it is one of the last large undeveloped tracts of land in Lee. How Woodbury assembled a huge team of well-connected professionals to overcome these challenges is a good lesson in how to win in Florida's tough environmental and regulatory climate. Although he's still at least a year from closing on the land, Woodbury enlisted partners with whom he's developed personal relationships over the years and who have helped him build successful developments in the past. The development is called The Fountains.

The location itself is significantly challenging. The land sits in an area that's been off-limits to developers for years because it's part of a 90,000-acre stretch that's been designated for recharging water aquifers below ground. It's also large enough to be considered a development of regional impact, which requires lengthy approval by a variety of state and county agencies. In addition, Woodbury wants to build 4,215 homes where only 2,500 are allowed and develop 2.4 million square feet of commercial space, enough to fill nearly 42 football fields.

The project is daunting. Indeed, Woodbury estimates his company will spend about $5 million even before Southstar closes on the property in 2007.

So what does it take to make the project a success?

Southstar has hired a small army of lawyers, engineers and consultants. The list includes five engineering companies, three law firms, two architecture firms, a hydrogeology firm and one "cultural resource assessment" company to make sure no significant archeological items are buried in the ground. In addition, Southstar has enlisted Fishkind & Associates, run by Hank Fishkind, Florida's best-known economist. The team is a combination of local lawyers and engineers who know how to get things done in Lee County and architects and planners from out of town who are well versed in the latest urban planning.

Woodbury himself is an old hand at developing residential communities in Florida. He's a veteran of Atlantic Gulf Communities, the successor to General Development Corp., and has been in the land-development business 25 years. Together with J. Larry Rutherford, SouthStar's president, Woodbury has developed more than 50 projects in Florida and six states.

"The key to success," Woodbury says, "is having good people that you've worked with so many times."

Engineers and lawyers

When Woodbury considered buying the land two years ago, his first visit was to the Fort Myers law firm of Henderson Franklin. The firm has been in town since 1924 and is well versed in local politics. It was named the project's zoning counsel.

Woodbury quickly realized that the ambitious project would need more expertise, however. "As I got an understanding of the land-use issues, I brought in two more lawyers," Woodbury says.

To oversee the Byzantine maze of applications for the development of regional impact, Woodbury hired the prominent law firm of Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tallahassee. One of its shareholders is Linda Shelley, former Secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

To handle environmental issues, Woodbury hired the Orlando law firm of Broad & Cassel. The firm's partner in charge of the development, Douglas Rillstone, has years of experience helping landowners wade through wetland, plant and wildlife regulations.

Meanwhile, Woodbury picked Tampa-based civil engineering firm Heidt & Associates because he's done numerous projects with the company and has a good personal relationship with Bill Bahlke, Heidt's president, and Toxey Hall, Heidt's executive vice president. Woodbury says Hall married a colleague he worked with at Atlantic Gulf long ago. "It becomes a small world," Woodbury explains. "When you're doing large-scale development in Florida, you get to know people."

One of the biggest obstacles, Woodbury knew, was how to overcome opposition to building on a 90,000-acre tract that's long been the county's primary source of water.

It turns out that a study commissioned in 2005 by Lee County showed that much of the area was incorrectly set aside for water recharge because it had been done without scientific basis. So Woodbury hired hydrogeologists from The Colinas Group in Sarasota to show that rain that falls on The Fountains land does not effectively recharge the aquifers. What's more, Woodbury says the development will actually help recharge the aquifers because it plans to remove blockages in the drainage areas and exotic vegetation.

Woodbury says he chose The Colinas Group because the company had helped him with another environmentally sensitive project in Lee County, the West Bay Club. The residential development hugged Estero Bay and a tributary ran through the property. "We had to deal with saltwater intrusion," Woodbury recalls.

Water isn't the only environmental obstacle. Because of the wildlife issues that were sure to crop up, Woodbury hired Palmetto-based engineering firm VHB. At a previous residential project in Bradenton, VHB had helped Southstar create a management plan and set aside an area for a pair of nesting bald eagles by working with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To round off the engineering team, Woodbury hired Orlando-based Leftwich Consulting Engineers to study transportation issues and Fort Myers-based Allied Engineering & Testing to handle geotechnical issues such as soil tests. Woodbury says it's important to hire local firms to perform soil tests because they are intimately familiar with the terrain.

New urbanists and density

Because the county's land-use plans only allow about 2,500 homes on the site, Woodbury enlisted the help of residential planners who are experts in what's known as New Urbanism. This architectural movement emphasizes more compact communities with a mix of housing types and shops and offices within walking distance.

New Urbanism encourages density rather than sprawl. Although The Fountains would have nearly twice the number of homes currently allowed, New Urbanism design would put more homes on just half the property, leaving the other half as conservation land.

Woodbury hired Orlando-based Canin Associates, whose residential design chief had worked with New Urbanism guru Andres Duany in Miami. (Duany's ideas also were used in some redevelopment in Downtown Sarasota). What's more, Canin has experience shepherding projects through the development of regional impact process. "I needed to get someone to understand how to put those together," Woodbury says. "They have great expertise at doing that work."

The Fountains will also include 300,000 square feet of shops and a town center. Although Woodbury knew Canin could do the work, he hired a firm called Shook Kelley from Charlotte, N.C., that specializes in retail and New Urbanism. "It's another mind, another set of creative people," Woodbury explains. The firm's principal, Terry Shook, lectures on the subject at Harvard University.

Consultants join the team

In addition to lawyers, engineers and planners, Woodbury needed consultants specializing in issues such as finance and archeology.

To figure out the financial feasibility of the project, Woodbury hired Orlando-based Fishkind & Associates. In addition to determining the project's feasibility, Woodbury says that Fishkind's analysis helps sell the project. For example, The Fountains will generate $29.3 million in impact fees and $144 million in real estate taxes for Lee County in the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, Woodbury wanted to make sure the property was clear of any artifacts of archeological importance. He doesn't want to find them when construction starts. It hired Janus Research of Tampa to do the work and so far, nothing's been found.

Another consultant, Brenda Yates of Coral Gables-based Yates & Co., is charged with overseeing the day-to-day operations and making sure everyone on the team keeps to the schedule. Yates worked with Woodbury at General Development.

Woodbury acknowledges that bringing the team together for meetings and keeping everyone on task can be challenging. "I take my schedule and I probably triple the time and triple the budget," he chuckles. "I would not want to take on 12 of these developments all at the same point."

Starting Line-up


Project manager: Yates & Co., Coral Gables.

Planning and landscape architecture: Shook Kelly, Charlotte, N.C.

Urban planner: Canin Associates, Orlando.

Geotechnical engineer: Allied Engineering & Testing, Fort Myers.

Civil engineer: Heidt Engineering, Tampa.

Environmental engineer: VHB, Palmetto.

Transportation engineer: Leftwich Consulting Engineers, Orlando

Environmental counsel: Broad and Cassel, Orlando.

Land-use counsel: Fowler White Boggs Banker, Tallahassee.

Local zoning counsel: Henderson Franklin, Fort Myers.

Local zoning engineers: Morris-Depew, Fort Myers.

Hydrogeologist: The Colinas Group, Sarasota.

Financial analyst: Fishkind & Associates, Orlando.

Cultural resource assessment: Janus Research, Tampa.


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