This is a tale of two islands, each enjoying the best of times when so much else of Florida has succumbed to what many believe are the worst of times-the age of development, the epoch of uncontrolled growth, the season of condominium-crowded coastlines.
Snead Island and the larger Terra Ceia are two old Manatee County communities populated by people who enjoy the water, the outdoors and, above all, privacy. Both are primarily residential areas with active and well-supported community associations. Destinations in themselves, each is rich with archaeological history and more than its share of beautiful views. And anyone hoping to move to either of these places will have to dig fairly deep into their pockets to pay the price. But there are differences between the two.
Depending on one's point of view, Terra Ceia, several miles north of downtown Palmetto, might be called less civilized-or less spoiled- than Snead Island. Terra Ceia, at three miles long by two miles wide, has about 475 residents. Snead Island, at 2 3/8 miles long by three-fourths of a mile wide, has about 530.
And while Snead Island faces the possibility of higher density development in the coming years, Terra Ceia isn't likely to see much change. Manatee County's Comprehensive Plan, drawn up in 1989 and projecting future growth until 2020, has designated it as a place that shouldn't be densely developed. The plan calls for no more than one house per acre in the coming years. Not only that, a large portion of Terra Ceia-almost 2,000 acres-has been acquired by the state and deemed protected from development.
So a visitor to Terra Ceia will find fewer homes and more areas of uninterrupted hardwood hammock reminiscent of old Florida. On a recent Sunday afternoon trip down Bayshore Drive and side streets through the village, barely a person was in sight-just miles of mangroves, palm trees and waterfront providing the backdrop for older Cracker homes and newer ones that dot the landscape.
Snead Island, on the other hand, is a bit more crowded. Houses are in view the moment one crosses the humpbacked bridge connecting the island to Palmetto. And on that same Sunday afternoon, the island was bubbling over with an extra dose of people and activity because a fishing tournament, hosted by the Bradenton Yacht Club at the southeastern point of the island, was just ending.
But something else a bit more subtle distinguishes the two communities. Consider the sign that welcomes visitors to Snead Island, which is about three miles west of Palmetto's main street and forms the northern entrance to the Manatee River. It's attractively landscaped with an artist's rendition of a great blue heron and the island's name in deep-water ocean blue. Terra Ceia's sign announcing itself is much more understated. It's brown and fairly easy to miss, seeming haphazard, almost, in its spot among the foliage adjacent to a boarded-up Fast Fetch. It says: "Welcome to Terra Ceia Island Historical Area. Please drive gently."
Terra Ceia residents will admit they like it that their village is somewhat undiscovered. "We don't advertise," says Brad Weigle, who's lived on the island for 25 years.
Terra Ceia "is not for everyone," adds Mary Helen Kermode, a 32-year resident and real estate agent for RE/MAX Gulfstream. On Terra Ceia, there are no sidewalks or curbs. There's no mail delivery. And though residents have county water, they're not connected to the county's sewer system. "It's not a subdivision," Kermode says. "It's old Florida. We've certainly fought to keep it that way."
So a motorist traveling north on U.S. 19 from Bradenton and Palmetto toward the Sunshine Skyway bridge could easily speed past Terra Ceia and not even know what he or she has missed; it's just that tucked away. But if after crossing the H.E. Boyd Bridge a driver turned west on Bayshore Drive where that old Fast Fetch still stands, he might believe he'd traveled back in time.
"It's kind of a frontier out here," says Dr. Randy J. Runnels as he maneuvers a visitor by boat through a labyrinth of mangroves in Bishop Harbor, adjacent to Terra Ceia. Bishop Harbor is one of the last embayments with an undeveloped shoreline in Tampa Bay.
"Eight years or so ago, this was all platted for lots," Runnels says, pointing toward the mangroves. "It's nice to know that you're not going to drive [south] across the Skyway and see condominiums."
That won't happen because the state has been acquiring land in Terra Ceia for conservation and to buffer and protect the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, which was established by the Florida Legislature in 1984. The aquatic preserve, home to wading birds, white pelicans, bald eagles, otters, wood storks and bats, was founded because legislators agreed Terra Ceia was a place that warranted special protection. The preserve includes submerged lands extending from south of Port Manatee into Bishop Harbor, Miguel Bay and Terra Ceia Bay, ending at the northern side of Emerson Point.
Terra Ceia residents will likely never see condos built on the land adjacent to the preserve because the state has acquired a total of 1,988 acres of uplands, all under management of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Terra Ceia Preserve State Park. The state began acquiring land in Terra Ceia about six years ago, says Runnels, who manages the preserves.
All of which makes Weigle happy. Weigle had been living in California when he decided to move to Florida to attend graduate school. He found Terra Ceia by chance. He was visiting Bradenton and was at the Greyhound bus station buying a ticket to the Tampa airport when the ticket salesman asked if he knew anyone looking for three acres of land and a house. Sure enough, he paid a visit to the property and ended up purchasing. Now, he says, "I don't want to live anywhere else in Florida."
Although he's seen a few changes in his years on the island, Weigle says that for the most part the old Florida feel remains. Twenty-five years ago, there were 70 or 80 homes on the island and the community was mostly elderly. Terra Ceia has been able to keep its charm because growth over the years has been controlled, thanks largely to Terra Ceia's Village Improvement Association.
About five years ago, Weigle says, a businessman tried to develop the property adjacent to his with a six-story condominium and a subdivision. Residents from the VIA devised a strategy to defeat the plan. Each chose an issue that would be adversely affected by the proposed development, such as plant life or animal habitat, and studied it before addressing Manatee County's planning department and the county commission. They rehearsed their pitch and put on what Weigle calls a "flowing proposal." They were successful in blocking the development, and the land was eventually purchased by the state. "It takes group effort and a strategy," Weigle says. "You can't do it at the last minute. We go to the commissions in an organized manner."
About half of Terra Ceia's residents are members of the VIA, says current president Cricket Clifton. The VIA organizes community events, such as a hayride in October for the children of the island and a mullet smoke-off in November, which draws about 300 people to taste the efforts of local fishermen.
Weigle says folks who live on the island "are still adventurers. They moved here for the outside." To live on Terra Ceia, "You have to not be so upset when the mosquitoes and the no-see-ums come out, because it means you have a healthy environment" with mangroves and other plant life. As for the lack of mail delivery, Weigle says he enjoys going to the post office and seeing his neighbors.
Kermode adds, "You're part of a community here that's like a big family. The post office is like a big hangout for people."
Property values have gone up considerably over the years. "The people who are buying here now are a lot richer," Weigle says. "I get concerned that as property values go up, people won't be able to live here anymore."
Kermode says she paid $20,000 for two acres on Terra Ceia Bay in 1979. Three months ago, she listed and sold a 10-acre tract of land with a house on the water for $1.715 million. "Waterfront all over the county has appreciated by about 34 percent," she says, "but I think here it's been even higher."
The Timucuan Indians were the first to live on Terra Ceia, and evidence of their existence is seen in the shell mounds in the area. One of those mounds-Madeira Bickel Mound-has been designated a state archaeological site.
Terra Ceia means "heavenly land." At one time it was a farming community (known as the celery capital of the world) growing fruits and vegetables as well as fresh flowers, which were shipped by boat to the New York markets. The first white settlers were Joseph and Julia "Madam Joe" Atzeroth, who arrived by sailboat with their three-year-old daughter in 1843.
That same year, Edward Sneed was staking his claim on another nearby island. If Sneed were to come back to his former home today, he might be confused by the sign that welcomes visitors. As history has it, Sneed gave the island his name when he settled there, calling it Sneeds Island. Ninety-year-old Kathryn "Kay" Kermode still puzzles over the name change. "This is something I never did figure out," says Kermode, who's written a book about the island. "I've never known it as anything but Sneeds Island. No apostrophe. Just Sneeds Island."
Kermode says the name isn't the only thing that's changed over the years. She grew up on Tenth Street West near the island, when there was no bridge connecting it to the mainland. Kermode remembers riding her pony across the cut over to Snead Island when the tide was low. A sandbar between the two pieces of land allowed island residents to cross to do their shopping or attend to business in town. "When it was ebb tide, my horse, his knees wouldn't even be wet," Kermode says. The sandbar has since washed away.
Some of the oldest homes on Snead Island are at the western end, on 17th Street West near Emerson Point State Park, in an area that's still largely undeveloped, with lots of trees and houses that are hidden away, not visible from the road. Sarasota attorney Deborah Blue and her husband, George Adley, recently bought one of those houses, a 1954 dwelling on two acres of land on the Manatee River. (They moved in at the end of July, just two weeks before Hurricane Charley looked like it might directly hit the area.) They chose Snead because "we were looking for more bang for the buck as far as lot size and water," Blue says. Asking price for the home was $1.375 million. They paid $1.1 million.
Blue says she and her husband like having immediate access to Tampa Bay and the Gulf, although their dock did suffer some damage from the onslaught of hurricanes. They'll renovate the house, but keep as much of the original 1950s charm as they can. Blue collects 1950s appliances, and her collection "has made the transition."
The house has three bedrooms and two baths, with low ceilings and views that do not capitalize on the water as much as she would like. But Blue plans to offset those things with outdoor living areas. A canopy of oaks provides shade for the home, and azaleas and fruit trees are plentiful on the lot, which has a pond in front of the house.
Blue made the move after 23 years in Sarasota, and says the only downside has been the commute to her law office. This hasn't been a problem for Adley, who has a law degree but works mostly out of their home as a residential mortgage banker. Their home is just a short walk to Emerson Point State Park, which will never be developed- another big selling point, Blue says. And they've already joined the Snead Island Community Association.
Dorothy Fletcher is president of that association, which covers the entire island. (The three developments on the island-Heritage Bay, Amberwynd, and Mangrove Point-each have their own homeowners associations as well.) The community association organizes a number of activities each year; among Fletcher's favorites is luminary night, when residents put out 5,000 luminaries on all the streets for one Sunday evening just before Christmas. It's a "peaceful and magical night," she says. Residents stroll the streets and people host open houses. Last Christmas, someone brought out a horse and carriage to enjoy the evening.
Fletcher moved to the island from Miami in 1997. She had family in Bradenton, and she and her husband were looking for waterfront property in the area. "We wanted a residential community," Fletcher says. "Anna Maria Island is wonderful, but it draws the public. Snead Island does not. You don't drive through it to go anywhere else. It's never going to have strip malls on it."
The few businesses operating on the island are related to the boating life and have been around for years. Snead Island Boat Works, formerly Pillsbury Boat Works, began in 1907. The Snead Island Crab House, which began as a fish market in the 1920s, has been owned and operated since 1970 by Clyde McInnis. McInnis, who is 90, still works all day seven days a week. ("We don't even close Christmas," he says.) McInnis can still picture what the island was like 35 years ago when it was largely undeveloped land. But he's not complaining about growth because it's been good for business.
Future growth, however, is probably the biggest issue facing Snead Island's community association. Residents would like to keep out high-density growth. Snead Island has parcels along the Manatee River with large homes on them now that in the future could become areas of greater density development, according to Manatee County's comprehensive plan. "It's got the potential, certainly," says Robert Sweeney, a development review specialist for Manatee County. "But I think any developer would have a tough time getting it done."
This is where the community association comes in. Sweeney says Manatee County commissioners would base any changes in the zoning for land on Snead Island on staff recommendations and public comment. The burden is on the developer to convince the board their plan is a good thing for a community, Sweeney says. "Sometimes public comment will quash it. Sometimes it won't."
Manatee County Commissioner Pat Glass, a Snead Island resident since 1990, lives in a home on three acres at the tip of Tarpon Road. "This is just paradise," she says. "It's not a house I built for speculation. This is my home."
Glass doesn't see higher density development in the island's future. "There's not that much property out there left to be developed," she says. "It would require a special permit to built multiple units on one parcel."
Snead Island's resident association has already had success in halting a proposed change they believed would hurt the island. A few years back it stopped the county from building a 200-foot public dock on the Manatee River that would have attracted boaters to Emerson Point Conservation Park.
It's not hard to imagine the members of Terra Ceia's VIA and Snead Island's community association meeting at the same time, several miles apart, hashing out the same issues. Perhaps this points to another similarity between these two communities: the protective instinct that comes with living in a land one calls paradise.
Places to explore
Snead Island and Terra Ceia both have sites on their western ends commemorating their first inhabitants-Native American Indians who lived and fished on their shores. Emerson Point State Park sits on 195 acres of Snead Island, and the Madeira Bickel Indian Mound is on 10 acres in Terra Ceia. Both have been acquired by the state as public conservation lands.
Emerson Point offers miles of trails to hikers, walkers and runners, whether they're interested in long treks or shorter loops. Some of the boardwalks lead to the shallows on the shoreline. One leads to an observation tower that gives a view of Tampa Bay from more than 60 feet up. And yet another side trail leads to a 1,000-year-old Indian village and the Portevant Indian Mound, the largest remaining Indian mound on Florida's west coast.
Signs along the paths explain the history of the area. The park is home to a pond that attracts wood storks, great blue herons, American egrets, little blue herons, roseate spoonbills and ducks of all sorts.
To get to Emerson Point, head west on Tenth Street West in Palmetto to Snead Island, then follow the signs. Turn right on Tarpon Avenue and left on 17th Street West until the end of the road.
Madeira Bickel Mound, in Terra Ceia, is the first site in Florida to become a state archaeological site. It's named after Madeira Bickel of Sarasota, who joined her husband, Karl, longtime head of UPI, in preserving Native American mounds from destruction. In 1948, the Bickels purchased and donated the mound and the land surrounding it to the state for preservation. The site's primary feature is a flat-topped temple or ceremonial mound, composed of sand, shell and village debris and measuring 100 feet by 170 feet at the base and 20 feet in height. Archaeological excavations have uncovered at least three periods of Native American culture at this site.
To get to the Bickel Mound, head west on Bayshore Drive off U.S. 19 just north of Palmetto. Continue about a mile and a half, following the posted signs to the park.
Admission is free to both sites, and hours are from 8 a.m. until sunset.