WITHIN DAYS AFTER HURRICANE CHARLEY devastated Southwest Florida in August, signs began appearing all along U.S. 41, the main drag through Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, from investors offering to buy properties at pre-hurricane values.
“Vultures,” says Robert Keller, a real estate broker in Punta Gorda.
To be sure, some of the would-be buyers were looking to capitalize on the misery of those who had been hit hardest by the storm. But legitimate builders and developers also have been quietly investigating the potential opportunities in a county that lies between the higher-priced Sarasota and Naples markets. Fort Myers–based real estate broker and asset manager Ed Bonkowski says he has staff in the area investigating opportunities, but he says it's premature to be making offers.
“The whole area is punch-drunk right now,” Bonkowski says. “Nobody knows what will happen in terms of development standards.”
The tracts that have attracted the keenest attention are the large, aging trailer parks, some of them located on waterfront property. With most of the mobile homes reduced to rubble, the cost involved to rebuild to current building codes may well persuade owners to sell.
Developers who are interested in purchasing mobile-home park property would probably receive a positive reception from Charlotte County zoning officials, says J. Raymond Byron, chief plans examiner for the county.
“If it were a significantly large park, say 20 acres, they would probably be more inclined to rezone to single-family [rather] than trailer park because it provides a better service to the individual who would live in that area,” Byron says. “Alot of our trailer parks are in flood zones because of agreements made years ago. If we ever get a storm surge, they'll float off their foundations, and there's nothing we [could] do about it. If it were rezoned to single-family, we [could] exercise the Florida building code and the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] code. That would lower the risk to other people from flying and floating debris.”
In addition to the trailer parks that were devastated, hundreds of modest homes built in the 1960s and 1970s along the harbor have been declared total write-offs. That means they are more than 50 percent damaged and have to be rebuilt to the current code, enacted in 1994 after Hurricane Andrew. Local real estate professionals anticipate that many of the owners will simply take their insurance settlements and choose not to rebuild.
“The north shore of the harbor has traditionally been neglected and ignored,” Keller says. “I'm looking at an opportunity to raise the bar in Port Charlotte and Charlotte County in general. You're going to get a lot of changes. I'm telling people there will be a lot of good coming out of it. We're going to look a lot nicer.”
“We haven't moved from our strategic position that we buy golf courses or on the water,” she says. “[But] we're not aggressively looking from that perspective.”
Still, Cox says it will be interesting to see what happens with real estate in the county, which she describes as highly underdeveloped and just on the verge of taking off when the hurricane hit.
“It will come back so strong,” she says. “They will rebuild and build it to code, and it will be able to stand up in the next storm. It's still a great place to live.”