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Highlighted in green is the 8,354-acre J.K. Stuart Ranch property in Sumter County, south of The Villages, that's a target for prospective residential development and limestone mining.
Highlighted in green is the 8,354-acre J.K. Stuart Ranch property in Sumter County, south of The Villages, that's a target for prospective residential development and limestone mining. (CBRE & Sage Land Group)

It's a mind-boggling land sale: 8,354 acres of raw land listed at more than $49 million, close to four major Florida highways and less than an hour's drive from Orlando.

The nearly 13-square-mile property is a wide-open canvas for future mixed-use development, according to Clinton G. Wallace, principal at Sage Land Group Inc., and Robert H. McEwan, first vice president at CBRE. Wallace and McEwan are marketing the vast acreage, known as the J.K. Stuart Ranch property, as a can't-miss development opportunity because of its location directly south of mammoth retirement community The Villages.

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"It's in an area that is not only ripe for development, it will be developed," Wallace told GrowthSpotter.

At the same time, the brokers are touting the property's large deposits of high-quality limestone, a critical resource for road building and construction that drive Central Florida's economy. Their plan is to subdivide about 1,000 acres near an existing CEMEX-Center Hill quarry, and sell it for mining.

In the last year and a half, The Villages has been acquiring large swaths of land directly north and northeast of the Stuart property, with between 8,000 and 10,000 acres purchased or under contract that expand the community boundaries southward in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties.

Highlighted in yellow are the 8,354 acres of J.K. Stuart Ranch property. For context, adjacent land in red are recent acquisitions or planned land deals by affiliates of The Villages.
Highlighted in yellow are the 8,354 acres of J.K. Stuart Ranch property. For context, adjacent land in red are recent acquisitions or planned land deals by affiliates of The Villages. (Sage Land Group)

More than 1,100 homes and condos were sold in The Villages MSA in 2016, up 34 percent from the year prior, according to Florida REALTORS. That annual mark should be topped again this year, as 685 sales have closed through June.

The Villages' continued expansion has put the Stuart property directly in the retirement community's growth path.

Officials with The Villages did not respond to requests for comment.

McEwan and Wallace say even if The Villages doesn't express an interest, a block of land this large, sitting undeveloped in what they call a "growth triangle" formed by Tampa, Orlando and The Villages, could tempt big institutional investors.

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"Because of what The Villages has done, it becomes attractive to large land investment funds," McEwan said. "There are funds out there that buy land and hold it for 10 years. Some are institutional, some high net-worth individuals. There is a whole world of folks out there that buy these big tracts of land."

Not everyone agrees. Realtor and land consultant Danny Smith of Wildwood said he's familiar with the Stuart property. Smith said development by The Villages that far south is at least 15 years in the future.

"It would be difficult for somebody else to develop it and it's going to be 15 years before the Villages gets there," Smith said. "You're going to have to discount it. It makes it tough to justify."

And Smith dismissed the notion of large investors or anyone else but The Villages buying such a large tract in that location.

"Show me who else is buying large tracts of land in Sumter," Smith said. "There are a lot of them talking but nobody is buying anything."

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Another factor that could dampen enthusiasm for the property is that it's six to seven miles from the nearest interchange on the Florida Turnpike at C.R. 470, said Susan Morris, principal and broker at Resource Development Investment Properties in Orlando. The turnpike is a likely route to Orlando for northern Sumter residents.

Wallace agrees that being closer to a turnpike interchange would make the Stuart property more valuable. But he says as the properties in this area are developed, state and local authorities will require an integrated road network that would improve overall transportation in the area, and shorten connections to the turnpike and other arterial roads.

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The descendants of J.K. Stuart who own the property are more than willing to donate land for right-of-way, Wallace said.

The more immediate value may be the land's high-quality limestone deposits that can be mined and processed as aggregate, a vital ingredient in roads that will connect the various growth centers of Central Florida.

Limestone mining is already a going concern in Sumter County, a mostly rural county with a population of about 119,000. In fact, the Stuart property is adjacent to the active CEMEX-Center Hill limestone aggregate operation, meaning Sumter could approve a mining permit.

McEwan and Wallace are still investigating the demand for limestone, but preliminary assessments indicate there will be a market due to geography and the economics of road building.

Right now, limestone mines around Brooksville in Hernando County and Zephyrhills in northern Pasco County have been the main source for road-building in the Tampa Bay area, Wallace said. Sumter County has been the main supplier for the Greater Orlando area.

"There are not many mines," McEwan said. "Not any mines closer to Orlando than the mines in Sumter County."

Florida Department of Transportation, the state's largest user of aggregate for roads, laid out the agency's concerns about future availability of limestone and other aggregate in a 2007 study.

It concluded that known deposits in Hernando, Sumter and Citrus counties were at risk to sprawling residential development. If those deposits were covered up by subdivisions and associated commercial building, Florida's economy would be at risk, the study said.

Fast forward to 2017, and the road-building agency hasn't shaken those concerns.

"Construction aggregate materials, which consist of rocks and other materials that vary in size, are a critical resource for the state's construction industry," FDOT spokeswoman Christine McDonald told GrowthSpotter. "At this time there are sufficient quantities to meet the state's needs. However, as a limited resource, it is always best to carefully consider any future potential sources."

Distance is a key cost factor when road builders decide where to get their raw materials, said Steve Pinyot, vice president of pre-construction for The Collage Companies. Pinyot's company is supplying 2.25 million cubic yards of high-quality sand and clay for FDOT's I-4 Ultimate project, a 21-mile makeover of the interstate from west of Kirkman Road in Orange County to east of S.R. 434 in Seminole County.

Collage Companies' sand is coming from a job site in Apopka, much closer to the I-4 expansion than Sumter County. Pinyot said his trucks can make five to seven round trips per day.

"The reason we're selling the dirt is because it's really close to the project," Pinyot said. "The cost of those materials is not always the most expensive part of the product; it's the shipping, the trucking.

"The closer you can get your products, your supply of raw materials, to the road where it's going to be used, the cheaper it is," he added.

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So those two factors -- high quality deposits and a 45- to 60-minute drive to Orange County for delivery -- reinforce Wallace and McEwan's belief in the Stuart property's value as a desirable site for limestone mining. The next closest area is Ocala, Wallace said, but that's another 45 minutes north.

"For Orlando, this property is crucial to growth in the next 100 years," Wallace said. "There are not a lot of places to mine aggregate. If you don't have a resource like this, you end up having the state paying a lot more money for shipping aggregate in from Cancun (Mexico)."

The brokers say their research shows land sold for mining would bring $18,000 to $25,000 an acre, depending on the quality of the aggregate, size of the deposit and market demand. Monetary value of the land could vary widely based on a developer's goals.

It also may vary depending on what The Villages, the biggest and most powerful player in the area's growth scheme, decides to do in the future, and how the Stuart family decides to dispose of the property.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at msalinero@outlook.com. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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