The 14,212-acre ranch in Yeehaw Junction that has been owned by descendants of Osceola pioneer cattleman Leroy Bass for generations is under contract to an Orlando developer who envisions it as a destination retirement community with a dozen golf courses, heliports and nearly 34,000 homes.
Sun Terra Communities has a long and successful track record of completing and delivering master-planned communities, including Harmony and Hills of Minneola. Principal Richard Jerman told GrowthSpotter he has eyed the Rohde property for years. And he’s had years to come up with a name for the biggest project he’ll ever tackle: Freedom.
Now, with financial backing from private equity firm JEN Partners, Sun Terra has a multi-year purchase deal with the Rohdes that allows the family to continue working the ranch during the permitting and early development phases.
“Freedom is the greatest opportunity I have had in my years in the real estate business,” Jerman said.
Today Sun Terra will file an application with Osceola County to amend the Comprehensive Plan, changing the future land use from Agricultural/Conservation to Low Density Residential for what would be one of Florida’s largest active adult communities, second only to The Villages.
“We have spent a lot of time developing the master plan, amenities and future lifestyle,” Jerman said. “We are commencing the long entitlement process, which we hope to complete in 24 months.”
Jerman turned to long-time collaborators and planners at Rj Whidden & Associates to create the conceptual plan with 15 distinct neighborhoods, all with commercial centers, golf courses and navigable waterways. The Sun Terra team also includes Principal Denver Marlowe and regional partner James Dunn.
The Rohde ranch sprawls across 22 square miles on State Road 60 in south Osceola County, across the street from the DeLuca Preserve. It was part of the doomed Destiny project, a proposed city in the heart of the Kissimmee River Valley that fizzled among a series of lawsuits, criminal convictions and economic recession.
Unlike Sun Terra’s other projects, this one is outside of Osceola County’s Urban Service Area, which means securing permits will be an uphill climb. In addition to getting approval from the county and state for the Large Scale CPA, Sun Terra also will need to rezone the acreage as a Planned Development and win approval from the Florida Legislature for a new Freedom Stewardship District to govern and manage the development.
Bob Whidden led the planning effort for Destiny and still believes the S.R. 60 corridor is primed for new development, especially at U.S. 441 and the Florida’s Turnpike interchange.
“This is the crossroads between the East Coast, all the stuff on the East Coast over there, all the way over to Bartow, Tampa, Sarasota, all that area over there,” Whidden said. “And then you’ve got just about the same thing going on with West Palm Beach and Orlando making the top and bottom side of that X.”
Whidden said the project is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible. It has three town centers encompassing 190 acres seeking entitlements for roughly 5 million square feet of commercial, office, retail and civic uses. Those could include hotels, shopping centers, restaurants, theaters, bandshells, heliports, EV charging centers, marinas and country clubs with championship and executive level golf courses.
“We have so much open space in this thing and so much recreation with 216 holes of golf, that’s two championship golf courses with 27 holes each, along with a string of nine 18-hole executive courses,” Whidden said.
The master plan also calls for a collection of service centers and activity centers with police, fire and other municipal services, grocery stores, dining, medical offices and clinics, self-storage, parks, community pools and other sporting facilities.
The primary mode of transportation within the community will be electric golf carts, so charging stations and golf-cart parking will be incorporated into each commercial center. There’s going to be miles of trails and golf cart paths — along every framework street and internal roadway, as well as through many nature preserves. The project won’t be gated, but Jerman expects there will be gated neighborhoods within it.
The master plan calls for the developer to restore roughly 1,000 acres of disturbed wetlands, the largest of which will be used to mitigate the development of the upland areas.
The buildout for a community of this scale could take 25 years, and Jerman said the earliest they could start construction would be late 2023. Sun Terra would establish its own homebuilding division for Freedom, he said.
The project would have to be largely self-contained. It’s bound on the west by the Turnpike, on the south by the El Maximo Ranch (38,353 acres) and DeLuca Preserve (27,000 acres), and on the east by Adams Ranch, which has conservation easements that require it to operate as a ranch in perpetuity.
A continuous network of interconnected waterways surrounds the wetlands and serves as anchors for each of the commercial centers. These navigable waterways were designed to provide miles of private boat access or community water taxi access between approximately half the residential neighborhoods and Freedom’s numerous non-residential centers as well as all activity centers.
Two industrial centers would provide space for outdoor RV and self-storage. Whidden said the district also could contract with Osceola County Sheriffs’ Office for security and police projection. It would likely have its own substation and fire station.
The proposed Freedom Stewardship District would need to issue general obligation and revenue bonds to finance the construction of water and sewer treatment plants, roads, parks, streetlights and stormwater systems. The property already has three existing wells, and the Bohdes have applied for a consumptive use permit to pump up to 2.58 million gallons per day of groundwater to support its hay and sod operations.
The St. Johns River Water Management District has issued a notice of intended action to grant the permit, and it goes to the governing board for a final decision on July 12.
Jerman knows to expect pushback from conservationists. He said it’s important to note that is property is not pristine, and the existing wetlands are poor quality. “This land has been used for agricultural purposes, primarily cattle, for decades,” he said. “They’ve changed the whole context of the land. The environmental impacts have already been made. We’re going to return a significant area of pasture to wetlands, which is a part of the environmental mitigation of the project.”
Sun Terra engaged John Burns Real Estate Consulting to conduct a financial analysis supporting the demand for more active adult communities in Florida. The study looked at more than a dozen 55+ communities in development in Central Florida. Several are among the top-selling master-planned communities in the nation. Those include The Villages, Latitude Margaritaville and On Top of the World. The 6,000-home active adult community planned in phase two of Sunbridge, rumored to be a Disney community, was not named in the report.
“We looked at the demographics and the upcoming number of population that are reaching that 55+ age, and the primary migration area is Florida,” Jerman said. “So we think there’s a great opportunity — especially at this location being close to the beach and airports of Palm Beach and Orlando.”