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Environmental Stewardship is Second Nature for Neal Communities

Tuesday, April 19, 2022  |  Community

Neal Communities makes every effort to be an environmental steward when building its neighborhoods and communities. Randy Olson would know. As the former land development manager and now director of special projects for Neal Communities’ land development division, he has spent the latter part of his career protecting Florida’s natural oak and pine canopy throughout Neal’s master planned neighborhoods.

Olson has personally traversed through acres of thick palmetto brush, ducked beneath hundreds of tree limbs and macheted his way through the relentless natural terrain of nearly every project since he joined the Neal Communities team in 2005. He walks the properties to identify paths for streets and intersections – all while looking for ways to preserve the existing trees. Because sometimes, the topographic maps aren’t enough. He needs to see the trees and the land. He also has overseen projects to protect erosion and stormwater runoff and pollution during construction of Neal Communities developments.

This upcoming Earth Day and Arbor Day, the staff at Neal Communities will be celebrating the company’s years of environmental stewardship. As Olson confirms, this focus on preserving elements of the natural environment is in the culture of one of the region’s largest homebuilders.

For Olson, stopping a project mid-way through clearing to protect a tree he didn’t notice before is just an everyday thing. Sometimes, the delay can take weeks, but to Olson and his co-workers, it’s worth it. “We’re not the guys that just go in and follow the blueprint; we’re the guys that will revise the blueprint,” Olson said.

Because of the company culture, Neal Communities has been recognized for its conservation efforts. The company has been awarded Builder of the Year by the Florida Green Building Coalition for six consecutive years starting in 2013. Decades before, starting in 1999, Neal Communities had employed BuildSmart initiatives, offering an array of green choices and products for home buyers. In fact, long before Florida had stringent environmental protection laws in place for new development, Neal Communities was doing what it could to preserve natural resources. The culture of emphasizing environmental protection has trickled down through the decades.

While Neal Communities’ homes have been built to Florida Green Building Coalition’s standards for many years, any new homes started after April 1 of this year will be built to the more-stringent National Green Building Standard. This means a qualified, independent third-party inspection will take place to verify green design and/or construction practices are incorporated correctly into the project. The inspectors look at lot design, resource efficiency (including energy, water, indoor environmental quality), operation, maintenance and building owner education. Neal Communities chose to adopt this higher standard to ensure long-term sustainability of their homes.

For Olson, it’s about the trees and native landscaping as well as water resource protection. For instance, Grand Palm in Venice opened its new social club about three years ago. Every effort was made to preserve the tree canopy around the amenity, which includes meeting space, a kitchen area and pool amenities.

“The Jewel of All Jewels”

“Grand Palm was the jewel of jewels because there were so many natural trees,” Olson said. He said the company ended up saving 29 mature oaks and trees in the area of the social club. In many cases, the trees were identified to be cut down but Olson and his team stopped development and altered plans to make room so the trees could stay. “You are looking at trees that are really not supposed to be there. But we will go the extra mile,” he said. “We’ll spend a little extra money and delay the project to save the trees.”

Grand Palm is known for its lush tree canopy of ancient oaks, sabal palms and more. Kathy Cioffi, who recently retired as VP of Design for Neal Communities, said the project was designed to preserve the natural environment. An estimated 33 percent of Venice’s Grand Palm is open space with nine miles of interconnected wildlife corridors, a 32-acre lake, fishing piers and kayak livery. The community also has an 18-acre central amenity with 10-acre nature exploration park, clubhouse with a fitness center, resort-style pool, two dog parks and courts for basketball, volleyball, tennis and bocce ball.

As a lead designer, Cioffi said she joined Olson on treks through the woods of Grand Palm in the beginning days. “I was involved in all of Grand Palm from conception to completion,” Cioffi said. Cioffi worked closely with architects throughout the project and helped design the entranceways, median landscaping, building facades, colors and more. Emphasis was placed on the property’s natural environmental features.

But hiking the woods to see the natural landscape before development is a common practice at Neal Communities. “We would go out there with our boots on, and, in the mud, walk through the whole property. That was something the whole team did,” Cioffi said. In fact, that was the way Forest Creek was developed. The 135-acre residential neighborhood is located just three miles east of Interstate 75 and U.S. 301 in Parrish. With 108 town homes and 236 single family homes, the community boasts 11 tree preserve areas scattered throughout the neighborhood that range in size from .12 acre to 1.7 acres. Olson said two planned roads and sidewalks were re-routed within the Forest Creek community to avoid tree root systems. The mature old oak trees, sabal palms and thick palmettos remain reminiscent of Old Florida.

“Generations of Families”

During construction, Neal Communities installs chain link fences around the trees to ensure preservation. Neal Communities staff is also cognizant of protecting water resources – as construction sediment can filter down and pollute nearby natural water sources. For River Sound, located east of Interstate 75 on Morgan Johnson Road in Manatee County, Neal Communities made a concerted effort not to interfere with the nearby Braden River.

The team eliminated possible stormwater runoff by discharging the water into lakes that Neal Communities had dug and stabilized. They did this by lowering the water table and directing the water into a sump hole. Water was then pumped into a channel and directed through a temporary filter to catch the fine, unwanted materials. Once filtered, the water was pumped into the onsite lake. This is common practice for Neal Communities throughout the building process.

Olson recalls developing the land of Central Park in Lakewood Ranch in 2010. He was out on the site when the bulldozers were creating one of those man-made lakes. Right in the path of the dozer was a large oak tree. He stopped the tractor in its tracks and told the supervisor to put the project on hold while he adjusted the plans. They ended up saving the tree. “It looked like an opportunity. So, we reshaped the lake bank in the middle of building the lake,” he said. “That tree is still out there, 12 years later.”

While many of Neal Communities’ preservation efforts are enjoyed by the residents of its gated neighborhoods, Neal Communities also has provided ways for the public to enjoy the natural outdoors. In 2014, the Neal family unveiled Neal Nature Preserve, a 120-acre parcel of land in Manatee County. The Neals sold the land at a reduced price to preserve its pristine wetlands and create a protected preserve. The public can now enjoy bike trails, a picnic pavilion, a wildlife observation point, a canoe and kayak launch, on-site parking, an information kiosk and restrooms.

“Environmental stewardship is absolutely part of the culture at Neal Communities,” Olson said. “The company’s motto is ‘Where You Live Matters’. I believe my role in developing these neighborhoods is to preserve the natural landscapes so that generations of families can enjoy nature. Because that matters.”