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FishHawk Ranch will learn that NEVrland has nothing to do with an eccentric singer and everything to do with fume-free, fun travel.

Published August 15, 2003

LITHIA - Fast forward to 2005: It's a Saturday afternoon in FishHawk Ranch, and a wildlife expert is leading a dozen teenagers riding Segway scooters on a guided tour of the community's tree-shaded natural trails.

At the town center, a row of funky little brightly-colored electric vehicles charge in their preferred parking spots while their owners run errands.

It's a vision inspired by Celebration, Disney's fantasy community outside Orlando.

There, electric cars fill the streets. They look like glorified golf carts but in fact are street legal and friendly to the environment.

That's the dream Don Whyte, vice president of FishHawk Ranch developer Newland Communities, has for the south Hillsborough neighborhood.

He has reached an agreement to bring NEVrland, which rents and sells electric cars, Segway scooters and other forms of alternative transportation in Celebration, to FishHawk Ranch in the next few months.

It's a good fit, said Whyte, because FishHawk prides itself on being "green."

And it's a big move for NEVrland, which plans to open five stores to serve resorts and master-planned communities throughout Florida in the next six months.

The first, at Sonesta Beach Resort in Key Biscayne, goes into gear today.

The FishHawk store will start out in a temporary space and then move to the community's town center after it's built.

NEVrland also plans to open stores in Winter Park, St. Augustine and the Villages near Leesburg, said Claudine Andrews, the company's executive vice president.

In addition to what are known as neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs (hence the NEVrland), the stores, operating under the name Relay, offer electric scooters and Segways, the highly touted high-tech scooters that move in response to the rider's subtle body movements.

Lean slightly forward, it goes. Lean back, it stops.

The Segways and electric cars, Whyte said, will be ideal for navigating FishHawk's nature trails or heading to the swimming pool or clubhouse. The electric vehicles will allow residents to drive their kids to school or, eventually, make a quick trip to the town center, without climbing into a gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing SUV.

Whyte said he plans to offer preferred parking and charging stations for electric vehicles in both the town center and at the clubhouse.

Andrews and her husband, Keith Albrizzi, former Palm Harbor residents, launched NEVrland three years ago in their garage.

At first, Albrizzi said, the Disney people frowned on his cottage industry.

"They told me they were going to shut me down. I said, "You can't. It's a home-based business."'

But visitors to the Celebration hotel started renting the products. Residents asked to buy them. The business boomed and after six months, Disney offered him a location.

"It just flew off," he said.

The couple has gone from $400,000 in gross sales in their first year to a projected $2-million this year. They have 18 employees so far and are looking into becoming a publicly traded company, Andrews said.

In April, NEVrland became one of the country's first authorized Segway dealers. The self-propelled scooters, which travel up to 12 mph, became available to the public six months ago. But NEVrland was among the first to offer an up-close look at the highly hyped machines.

As for the electric vehicles, the two- and four-seaters are similar to golf carts, but come with doors. And with a top speed of 25 mph, they're about 10 mph faster than golf carts. They also have been crash tested, and have seat belts, lights and blinkers, so they're legal to drive on streets with a speed limit of 35 mph. The speed limit in FishHawk Ranch is 30 mph, said marketing manager Pam Parisi. It's 40 mph on FishHawk Boulevard.

According to state statute, the vehicles must be registered and insured. Operators must have a valid driver's license. The cars are good to go for 30 miles after a four- to six-hour charge in a standard electrical outlet.

"There's no fancy stuff here," Albrizzi said.

In Celebration, a community with 3,800 households, NEVrland has sold 400 electric cars, 100 Segways and 250 electric scooters. The cars cost about $7,000; the Segways go for about $5,000.

"The community has really embraced that mode of transportation," said Andrea Finger, spokeswoman for the Celebration company.

All the vehicles can be rented daily, weekly or monthly. Rates range from $39.50 an hour for a Segway to $50 a day for a scooter and $99 a day for a car.

Whyte said he plans to rent an electric vehicle for family members who visit him at his FishHawk home.

"Why rent a car? A little electric vehicle for the week they're here? That would be ideal," he said. "That's what they do in Celebration."

The vehicles allow drivers to get around while minimizing damage to the environment.

According to the Green Car Institute, 70 percent of all car trips are less than 5 miles from home on roads with speed limits of less than 35 mph.

Those are the trips that cause the greatest pollution.

"Most emissions come on short trips before the car warms up, where you start it up and go 2 or 3 miles and then park it and go into the grocery store," said David Dunagan, regional transportation project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy in Atlanta.

As Albrizzi puts it: "You can get in an SUV and smoke up the world or get into a car that's easy to start. ... We're not here to replace SUVs. What we're saying to you is, as a family of four or six you need one of those vehicles. But there are other ways to get around."

A neighborhood electric vehicle, Albrizzi said, often will pay for itself by saving money on gas, oil and repairs. Relay offers free maintenance to its customers. Plus, there are government incentives.

The federal government offers a 10 percent tax credit on the purchase price of electric vehicles. Some states, though not Florida, offer additional rebates. In Georgia, buyers get a $5,000 tax credit when they buy or lease electric vehicles.

Hybrid cars, powered by a combination of electricity and gas, have increased their presence on America's roads, but electric vehicles as a whole haven't taken off because of their limited speed and high price, Dunagan said.

But neighborhood electric vehicles represent a niche that is thriving, he said.

"The Holy Grail of alternative fuels is the hydrogen fuel cell car, which, depending on who you talk to, is anywhere from a decade to 20 years away from commercial viability," said Steve Reich, a transportation analyst at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. "In the meantime, there are transitional vehicles and fuels that make sense whether your concerns are environmental or energy security and importation of foreign oil. The neighborhood electric is one of those."

Florida is particularly well suited for such a mode of transportation.

"You have these gated communities and neoclassical development ... and you don't need to go out on a multilane highway to hit the Publix," Reich said.

Albrizzi hopes to eventually introduce the Smart Car to the U.S. market. The vehicles, which Mercedes sells in Europe, carry a price tag of about $12,000, are nearly emission free and can go up to 80 mph.

Dunagan sees such cars as the wave of the future.

"It's part of the overall picture of moving toward sustainability, where we're not depleting our resources," Dunagan said. "It makes for an enhanced quality of life."

The vehicles improve air quality, reduce traffic and noise, and cause fewer pedestrian accidents.

"What's not to like?" he said. "They're fun, too."

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