By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2001
OXFORD -- Along County Road 466 in Sumter County, where armies of purple wildflowers straddle the asphalt and brighten the view, it is possible to see the past and the future all at once.
Look to the south and see miles of pasture dotted with cattle and solitary oaks before verdant ridges, beyond which there is more of the same.
Look to the north and see row upon row of spanking new rooftops, part of a self-contained suburban retirement "town" called the Villages that seven years ago was largely a pasture as well. Here, 25,000 adults romp on 181 holes of golf, go to polo matches and aerobics classes and gather every evening for concerts on the grime-free town square.
Back on 466, Gary L. Lester, a Villages executive who doubles as the town's chamber of commerce president, is driving his SUV and pointing south over the bent necks of scattered cows.
He describes a great plain stretching 8 miles long and 5 miles wide on which the Villages intends to build, more than doubling its population by 2010 and tripling it to 75,000 by 2015.
The staggering pace of the Villages' expansion is what increased Sumter's population by 69 percent in the past decade and made it one of Florida's two fastest-growing counties in percentage terms, according to U.S. Census figures released last week.
Flagler, south of Jacksonville, was the fastest-growing county, with 74 percent growth, followed by Collier County (65 percent), home of Naples, and Wakulla County (61 percent), just south of Tallahassee.
None of the other three counties has a project like the Villages. And none -- Sumter included -- saw the kind of whopping surge that pushed the South Florida regional tally over the 5-million mark.
But each has a unique set of factors that is driving the growth in their back yards and adding to Florida's rising stature as a political and economic powerhouse.
In Flagler, retirees continue to flock to Palm Coast, the sprawling development with a prominent water tower along I-95, and to Hammock Dunes, a golf community offering opulent oceanfront homes.
When Palm Coast became incorporated last year, it immediately became the second-largest city in northeast Florida, boasting 32,000 residents.
But Flagler officials are noticing a new trend. About 70 percent of its newest residents are working-age people with families. Many have come from northern states, but large numbers are flocking north to Flagler to escape South Florida's congestion.
"We're starting to see strollers," said Dick Morris, executive director of the Flagler County/Palm Coast Chamber of Commerce.
Now that the county has more working-age people, the next challenge is finding jobs for them, said Steve Marrow of Enterprise Flagler, an economic development group. Fifty percent of them are traveling more than 30 minutes to work, he said.
Brian Teeple, executive director of the Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council, said he knows one couple that heads opposite directions in the morning -- one to a job in Jacksonville and the other to work in Orlando.
Their children are a different matter. "We're bulging at the seams," said School Board president Dell Trayer, who said the district is building a middle school and high school.
In Collier County, which added 100,000 residents, the past 10 years have been marked by the continued development of Marco Island, Golden Gate Estates and the I-75 corridor, said Wayne E. Daltry, executive director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.
"Some of the stuff for sale for $9-million was migrant housing 15 years ago," he said. "We've got several pockets of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
Much of the growth is from retirees and golf communities, he said. But, like Flagler, Collier County is seeing more young faces -- a trend that started before the 1990 census.
The workforce is sustained by the growing presence of software and other technology companies, as well as the medical industry, which thrives because of the large retirement population.
Many of the new residents are attracted by the knowledge that Naples will never become another Miami, Daltry said. Collier's urban areas are hemmed in by large conservation areas such as the Big Cypress National Water Preserve, Everglades National Park and 10,000 Island Aquatic Preserve.
Similar conditions exist at the other end of the state in Wakulla, where the Apalachicola National Forest takes up the western half of the county and the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge occupies the coastline, preventing development.
The county has yet to be discovered by retirees. The only new retirement community under construction has just 35 units.
The county's folksy air is reflected in one of its Web sites, which is illustrated with pictures of a moving rocking chair and a steaming cup of coffee.
The U.S. Census reported that Wakulla County gained nearly 9,000 people since 1990. Ed Mills, the county's community development director, says 1,000 new homes were built in the past two years alone.
Most of the influx came from Tallahassee professionals who enjoy the quieter surroundings. "There's a lot of BMWs with gun racks down here," Mills said.
Sumter County is also blessed with conservation areas, most notably in its southern tip -- home to parts of the Withlacoochee State Forest and the Green Swamp. But those areas have little effect on the northern part of the county, where great swaths of farmland have been gobbled up by the Villages.
Another factor in the county's growth is geography. Wildwood, the county's largest city, sits at the confluence of I-75 and the Florida Turnpike, and the Villages expansion is expected to require as many as three new interchanges in the next five years.
Situated east of Citrus and Hernando counties, Sumter lies just outside of what is loosely considered the Tampa Bay area. But it might as well be in the area. Tampa's proximity, about an hour south of Wildwood, is a selling point for the Villages, which can build a home in about 40 days and last year sold about 1,800 of them.
The county's newest residents have their own restaurants and grocery stores right on the Villages property, their own television and radio stations, their own daily newspaper, their own movie theater, their own churches, and, soon, their own hospital. Hundreds of golf carts -- nearly everyone has one -- zip along neatly landscaped boulevards past new homes of every price range and description.
The project has led to resentment in southern Sumter, a more rural region with "different needs, different wants, different likes," said Greg Stubbs, the county's planning director.
In a county where average job earnings hover around $23,000, the average home buyer in the Villages would tend to stand out, with a household income close to $70,000.
Lester, the Villages official, said there are residents in the development from every state, but most come from the Midwest, Pennsylvania and upstate New York -- newcomers who are changing the county in dramatic ways.
Of the four fastest-growing counties, only Sumter has seen its politics fundamentally shift since 1990.
Collier County was heavily Republican and remains that way. Flagler still tilts slightly Democratic. Wakulla is overwhelmingly Democratic but continues to want Republican presidents.
In Sumter, though, most of the newcomers are Republicans. Sumter was comfortably in Bill Clinton's camp in 1992, but George W. Bush took the county by 2,500 votes in 2000.
"I didn't even know a Republican 'til I was 15 years old," marvels Reggie Caruthers, a real estate broker and a sixth-generation resident of the tiny hamlet of Oxford.
It is Oxford that stands to change the most from the Villages, just 3 miles east on County Road 466. The town along U.S. 301 has one small grocer, one ballfield, a two-pump gas station and four churches.
But a new convenience store is on the way, along with plans to widen 301. Three climate-controlled storage businesses have opened recently, and the county has labeled it a "growth center."
There was a time when tomatoes and watermelons grew in the miles of open land now being purchased by the Villages. In his youth, Caruthers helped get it all to market from the small packing house that his father built by hand in the 1940s.
Now, there is no telling how far the rooftops will spread.
"We haven't finished buying property yet," Lester said. "So who's to say."