BOOM TIMES RETURN


July 30, 2018

By GREG MARTIN - SUN CORRESPONDENT

Having seen its population double in each decade of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Charlotte County isn’t new to exponential growth. This time, however, a combination of political, economic and demographic factors seem to have reached a critical mass, according to some leaders and building experts in the Charlotte/North Port region.

Now, developers are restarting long stalled projects, and builders are racing to complete more than 1,000 residential units per year in Charlotte: “It’s literally going gangbusters,” said Brian Gleason, spokesperson for the county.  e cites a growing list of real estate projects coming up for approvals on County Commission and Planning and Zoning Board agendas.

They include South Gulf Cove, Murdock Village, Tucker’s Point, Babcock Ranch and a new rural community planned near the Lee County line by the Harper McNew real estate company.

In North Port, the increasingly massive West Villages community is setting a pace that will be bolstered by next year’s completion of a spring training stadium for the Atlanta Braves. City merchants are coming in and positioning themselves for what’s to come.

The region’s larger current numbers, though, are in Charlotte, where officials cite a myriad of new businesses, from Wawa gas stations to the county’s first Harbor Freight tool store. Other projects include The Springs at Charlotte Commons apartment complex at Veterans Boulevard and Kings Highway, Waterford Estates off Airport and Taylor roads in Punta Gorda and the proposed Lost Lagoon water park, also in Murdock.

“It’s skyrocketing,” according to Shaun Cullinan, county planning and zoning official.  Cullinan pointed to building permit statistics. They show the number of single family home permits have almost quadrupled in the past five years.

The month of May’s 167 set a Charlotte record for the past five years, easily topping the previous high of 138 in March and April’s 122 and continuing a record streak of five straight months of triple-digits. Consider 2013 ended with 28 that December.

The valuation of that new construction has more than doubled as well, from $111 million worth of homes in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $257 million in the 2016-17, according to another set of statistics from County Building Official Ben Bailey.

“Oh yeah, we’re seeing crazy growth,” confirms Nick White, a sales associate for HD Custom Homes. His firm is building upscale homes on sailboat canals in South Gulf Cove.  Development within this subdivision had plodded along slowly since it was started in the 1980s.  Now, it’s one of the county’s “hot spots,” according to Cullinan.

“It’s a huge increase,” White said. “We’ve built over 800 houses in the past few years. We’re now seeing the cost of materials, the cost of labor rising.”

One factor in the growth rate increase is a change in attitude among county development regulators, Cullinan said.  “I think it’s just been a culture change from the top down,” he said. “We went from: What you can’t do to what you can.”

How long the boom will last is anyone’s guess.

What’s certain, however, as that Charlotte County, Punta Gorda, Englewood and North Port will be grappling with an age-old urban challenge: How to best manage growth so the priceless assets that made this area so attractive are preserved, if not augmented, for future generations.

Different approaches

Sharing on some of the 858 square miles of turf, Punta Gorda and Charlotte County leaders seem to be taking two different approaches so far.

In the city, a public debate erupted in April after a City Council member suggested, hypothetically, that building height limits be raised from 50 to 84 feet. In response to a public outcry, the City Council decided to hire a consultant to update its 2005 Citizens Master Plan.

That plan had established a vision for city’s redevelopment after Hurricane Charley. It had emphasized preserving the historical charm of downtown and it connecting to residential areas via public pathways through waterfront parks.

A revision may now offer the city a chance to rewrite its downtown zoning codes so that developers will have incentives, in the form of taller building limits, to help the community create public gathering spaces in determining “setback” areas, according to Mitchell Austin, chief city planner, AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) and an accredited adherent to the Charter of the New Urbanism, which is a University of Miami institute.

“So, the objective should be looking at how building heights affect the public life on the ground,” he said, “and how that (development) benefits the public. We can consider health, safety and welfare, and use those tools to protect the public.”

Several Charlotte County commissioners, meanwhile, are taking a more laissez-faire approach. In recent interviews, several expressed confidence in a series of strategic plans the county has relied on for years to manage growth. The plans, which are updated regularly, identify several billion dollars in projects, including roads, sewers, parks and bike baths. The intent is to maintain acceptable levels of service countywide as population climbs.

Commission Chairman Ken Doherty says he also relies on the developers themselves to build the right projects in the right places. “Those investors in the private sector do a lot of homework and generally know what will work,” he said.

A retired engineer who began his career in Charlotte County in the 1970s, Doherty recalls how the Great Recession caused “a lost decade” in county growth. The recession virtually shut down new development in 2010.  “I couldn’t believe I would see the day when they would just flip a switch and everything would stop,” he said.

Among the projects sidelined was Babcock Ranch, a futuristic solar city of 50,000, long-planned by Kitson & Partners.  Doherty recalls how Syd Kitson, CEO of Kitson & Partners, would return each year during the lost decade to ask for a continuance of his developer’s agreement.

“I thought, there’s a professional who’s really astute,” recalled Doherty. “When he’s ready to pull the trigger, we’ve begun the turnaround. Then one day, (Kitson) came in and said, ‘We’re getting started.’” Doherty gave kudos to the county’s “first class staff,” which worked to reform the county’s reputation for being stubborn on issuing permits.

The commission also deserves credit for easing some of the hurdles, according to Cullinan. He cited South Gulf Cove, where the county recently won state approval to permit the construction of seawalls. The concrete structures had been banned by the state in favor of allowing natural shorelines to provide aquatic habitats in the subdivision.  The county, however, argued the seawalls would reduce silt infiltration and improve flow, and the improvement to navigation made residential lots in the area more attractive, Cullinan said.

“(Development) is spiking,” confirmed James Herston, a board member of both the Charlotte County Airport Authority and the Charlotte County-Punta Gorda Metropolitan Planning Organization. “It’s the perfect storm.  “I think it’s really optimism breaking out,” he contended. “I think it’s a fact, if you have a more positive outlook, you’re more willing to spend.”  Herston also pointed out, Charlotte County is situated between Sarasota and Lee counties where coastal real estate prices are higher. Builders are turning to lower-priced Charlotte to meet demand.

The University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, which calculates population projections for the state of Florida, cites as a significant factor that 77 million “baby boomers” have begun retiring. Many are choosing to move to Florida. The county’s median age is 57.7, one of the oldest in the country.

But the boomers are just a fraction of the 900 people who move to Florida each day, making the Sunshine State the second fastest growing in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau reports. The draw is natural.

“Because they want to be on the water, they are going to be moving down here,” said Joe Tiseo, Charlotte County commissioner.

According to BEBR, Charlotte County swelled by 8 percent since 2010 to a population of 172,742 in 2017. That’s faster than Sarasota County (7.3 percent) and DeSoto (2.2 percent) but not as fast as Lee (12.9 percent).  BEBR projects Charlotte County will sprout by 11 percent between 2020 and 2030 to a population of some 200,000.

Those numbers, however, may be underestimating what’s really happening. The Census Bureau, in fact, estimates higher than BEBR, saying the county’s numbers already exceeded 182,000 in 2017. That‘s up some 5 percent just since 2015, when the county hit 173,000, according to Census estimates.

Commissioners seem keenly aware of this surge. Earlier this month, they lambasted staff members and consultants at a meeting focused on future office space needs for using dated federal statistics that put Charlotte’s population at 184,000 five years from now.

“Please double check your population figures,” Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch said. “Most people I talk to think you’re way off.”

Measuring the surge

There are other ways to measure the growth.

Cullinan recently drafted a map of the county that uses colored dots to show where the new construction was concentrating. The map shows dense clusters splattered across Gulf Cove, Rotonda and Deep Creek. But hundreds of new houses and apartments are also getting built in virtually all areas, from Northwest Port Charlotte to Pirate Harbor, and from Grove City to the Charlotte Ranchettes, the map indicates.

Another sign of the times: the Punta Gorda Airport plans to spend more than $150 million in the next 20 years on expansion projects. Western Michigan University is starting up a major flight school at the airport. And Allegiant Air, which hopes to expand its destinations by some 50 percent in the next few years, is gearing up construction on its Sunseeker Resort in Charlotte Harbor.

“Charlotte County is on the move,” Deutsch said. “Just a few years ago, builders were looking for buyers. Now, buyers are looking for builders and can’t find enough of them.”

Punta Gorda’s growth rate, meanwhile, has remained steady but strong. The number of homes built in the city has fluctuated slightly over the last few years with an average of 114 residential permits per year.

But, those statistics don’t show another trend: the houses people are now building, particularly in Punta Gorda Isles, are typically larger custom homes with swimming pools that take up to 18 months to build, according to Randy Cole, city building official. More often in recent years, homebuyers are demolishing older PGI houses to assemble “double lots” for houses as big as 10,000 square feet, he said.

Several developers are also building more basic single-family homes and apartments elsewhere in the city, some with rents for efficiencies as low as $800 per month.

“We came out of the recession early,” said Cole. “People building million-dollar homes are not as affected by the economy.”  Punta Gorda currently is about 80 percent “built out,” according to Cole. The county is 25 percent built out. At maximum, the county has enough platted lots for 500,000 people, according to Cullinan.

Already, Punta Gorda has begun bracing for the changes. The City Council formed an ad hoc committee to consider Sunseeker’s impacts, good and bad, as the mammoth complex alters the geography along the harbor coastline on the north side of the Peace River.

County Economic Development Director Lucienne Pears, commission chair Doherty and a Sunseeker representative responded to that move by visiting City Council members individually. The Sunseeker squad wanted to know if the ad hoc committee was set up to “throw a wrench” into the project’s approval, according to Councilman Gary Wein. He said he told the group the ad-hoc committee would look at such topics as whether Sunseeker will cause traffic jams on U.S. 41 in the city.

The Sunseeker group replied that U.S. 41 would remain at the same level of service, Wein said.  “They know I am pro-evolutionary, appropriate growth. So our meeting was not contentious,” he said.

Florida’s Final Frontier: Murdock Village property area in northern Charlotte County near Toledo Blade Boulevard and Como Waterway. Today, it looks like a wide open frontier. But this is among the expected boom spots in the region as more developers, homeowners and businesses flock to one of the final undiscovered coastal areas on the Peninsula.

THE BOTTOM LINE

After cultivating his piece of paradise well over a century ago, American icon and inventor Thomas Edison said, there’s only one Southwest Florida and 90 million people are going to find it out.

That now may come true. Long overlooked as other parts of the Peninsula near and far exploded, it might be Charlotte County’s and North Port’s turn. Hidden away between Tampa Bay and Miami and nestled between Sarasota and Fort Myers, the area has remained one of the few relatively undiscovered coastal spots, somewhat evidenced by currently serving as the state’s last place to have I-75 widened to six lanes.

But that’s quickly changing as Florida’s Final Frontier launches into a development boom. The Sun is taking a look at how fast we’re growing, and how we’re set to manage the changes that are sure to come. This is the first of a series that’s scheduled to resume Friday.