It was 1998 when the Davis family, a large Northeast Florida local landowner with controlling interest in the Winn-Dixie food store chain, decided to partner with the PARC Group to develop a 15,000-acre new town of Nocatee just outside of Jacksonville. Now, despite eight years of repeated setbacks and environmental challenges, the dirt is finally starting to move on the new mega-project in one of Florida's hottest growth corridors.

Developers expect the first family to move in during the summer of 2007, and when it's complete in about 25 years, an estimated 35,000 people will live in 14,000 homes in the development which spans St. Johns County and a small corner of Duval County. “There has never been anything in northeast Florida like this,” says Greg Barbour, president of the PARC Group.

From the beginning, the Nocatee plan called for protecting a great deal of the land through preserves, according to Barbour. The Davis family has roots that run deep in the local sugar sand and felt strongly about creating a development that would preserve some of region's natural systems.

But their vision of preservation wasn't enough to protect the development from legal challenges, and a battle over sprawl ensued that delayed construction for years. Finally, in 2003, a concession was reached when developers agreed to add some fences in areas near wildlife crossings and include garage apartments and multi-family developments in additional sections of the community. In turn, Florida Wildlife Foundation withdrew its lawsuit, and the Sierra Club quickly followed in kind.

Once the smoke had cleared, big builders considering a presence in the project finally had assurance and necessary infrastructure plans could move forward. As part of the approval agreement, Nocatee developers were required to build major roads to upgrade the area's transportation system, which now consists of two-lane roads linked to Interstate 95.

Paying for the infrastructure with capital raised through Community Development District bonds (CDDs), the Nocatee developers finally broke ground in the fall of 2005. (In Florida, CDDs are created by permission of the local government, allowing the developer to sell bonds as a municipality would, with future home buyers paying them off.)

“Out transportation mitigation is over $150 million,” says Barbour. And about $80 million of that will be spent on a limited access highway through the project, a rerouted State Road 210. Construction on that road is underway and expected to be finished this year.

Today, about 1,000 acres of Nocatee has already been sold to three large national builders. Toll Brothers is building a gated community called Coastal Oaks with about 900 high-end, single-family homes, neo-traditional homes, townhomes, and village homes. Centex Homes is planning 343 single-family homes with prices between $400,000 and $600,000 and about 100 town-homes on 238 acres.

Pulte will develop a 160-unit condominium community on 15 acres near Nocatee's town center, and Pulte's Del Webb has plans for an active adult community called Riverwood that will ultimately have more than 2,000 homes, townhomes, and condominiums, as well as two amenity centers.

The residents will be able to shop and work at a town center with 1-million square feet of retail and commercial space and 4.2-million square feet of office space. Land designations have been made for parks, a fire station, and a police station.

Nine schools at sites donated to the county will provide education to the town's children who will be able to ride their bicycles there via 6,000 acres of green ways, which connect 300 acres of neighborhood and community parks. Another 2,400-acre park, stretching three-and-a-half miles along the Intracoastal Waterway, was also donated to St. Johns County by the landowners.

“We used to deal with the smaller builders,” says Barbour, referring to the PARC Group. “Most of them have been bought by the big builders who bring a lot to the table. They bring the financial ability to take down larger tracts of land and, for a community like Nocatee, that is significant.”