“There was a time when I thought we would never get to the end,” said Pat Neal, chief executive officer of Neal Communities, referring to the seven-year planning process for his highly successful Grand Palm community in Venice. “In fact, I said at the time that I would never do another community under the 2050 guidelines, but the results are phenomenal and unbelievable. I’m starting another 2050 property right now.”
Grand Palm is the largest neighborhood Neal Communities has created in its more than 40 years of building, with plans for 1,999 homes at completion.
It was the first community ever to be built under the stringent requirements of the Sarasota County government’s 2050 plan – a plan intended to guide development.
“It took a leap of faith by the developer to give it a try,” said Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines. “Until it was built, it was theory.”
But the theory worked out quite nicely. Consistently, the builder sells anywhere between 10 – 20 homes per month at the popular South County community.
Close to four years after its grand opening, in September 2012, it remains the only community ever to be built under the 2050 guidelines, even though several more are in the planning stages.
Located off River Road in Venice, Grand Palm’s layout preserves more than 33 percent of the land as open space and features spectacular preserved trees from the grand entrance, continuing throughout the community. Home plans range in size from 1,079 to 3,346 square feet.
Residents have miles of walking and bike trails that weave through the community and into a private wooded island surrounded by Adventure Lake.
“Close to 385,000 people move to Florida every year, and they’re going to find somewhere to live,” said Neal. “We’d like to have good places for them to live that are a credit to the environment.”
High sales and customer feedback are a testament to the time, patience, perseverance and skill it took to create something truly extraordinary at Grand Palm.
Linda Schrier moved to Grand Palm two years ago from St. Louis. She noted the community caught her eye through an online search and exceeded her expectations in person.
“It’s so different here,” she said. “There’s nature and preserve all around. It’s everywhere. You feel like you are in a tropical resort all year round and that is what we really like,” said Schrier.
Her family found a homesite with a lake in the back yard and a preserve in the front yard, typical of many home sites in the master-planned community but not very common in other communities anywhere nearby.
Integrating homes with nature is just one of many guiding principles within the Sarasota 2050 plan. Others include: walkability, trails, open green space, clustered homes and wetland conservation. Then there’s the big one – fiscal neutrality, meaning taxpayers don’t pay the cost of development.
“It was expensive, difficult and no one else has done it,” said Neal. But, he admits, it was worth it.
“I love driving into Grand Palm, and I hope that’s what everyone else likes too. All the green space is exceptional; all the Florida that remains here. “Within 30 seconds of your arrival, you feel the difference here. No other property that I know of in this region feels that way,” he said.
Alec Hoffner, an environmental consultant, who worked at Grand Palm since its infancy, said the community holds a special place in his heart.
“This is a beautiful development,” said Hoffner. “I appreciate how it is incorporated into the natural environment and how it has been taken care of. I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Hoffner believes elements of the 2050 plan work well, and with developer buy in, the results can be spectacular.
“This community is a testament to that,” he said. “The open space, clustered homes, wildlife corridors and added buffers around the perimeter really work here. Neal Communities is a good company and a strong steward of the environment. Its attention to detail and truly comprehensive approach to development has made this community an example for others to follow,” Hoffner said.
County Commissioners hope several developers follow Neal’s lead.
“It’s the best balance between pure environmentalism and pure growth,” said Hines. “If you protect more open space you’ll get more homes, but denser and closer together homes. It creates a feeling of being surrounded by woods and the environment. I think that’s why people like it and that’s why this community has been so successful and others in the future will be too.”
Neal says as with any of the communities his firm creates, “there’s an advantage to working with a builder who lives in the community.”
“My instructions to my team are: Please do not make me go hide behind the corn flakes if I see our customers at Publix,” said Neal. “I want to look customers in the eye and be proud of the interaction we are going to have. I am happy to say that I can do so.”
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