The land market in Southwest Florida is showing signs of life.
As they would in a chess game, developers are making strategic moves and jockeying to take advantage of a recovering housing market — and future growth.
Earlier this week, Minto Communities LLC, based in Canada, unveiled plans to take over Sabal Bay, a long-planned 2,300-acre housing project in East Naples. The multimillion-dollar land sale is expected to close later this year and plans call for more than 1,600 homes, with more than 1,300 acres of preserves, lakes and natural habitat, south of Thomasson Drive.
On Wednesday, LaBelle-based Alico Inc. announced its sale of 5,187 acres near Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero to a local developer, O.J. Buigas, for $10 million. Part of the deal has already closed, Lee County land records show.
"People are stepping out and taking a position and they are doing this because they are buying the property at very fair prices...They are seeing there is light on the other side of the tunnel and the future is promising," said Randy Thibaut, a commercial real estate broker with Land Solutions in Fort Myers.
In the case of Buigas, he's paying less than $2,000 an acre for the land in Estero, east of FGCU between Corkscrew and Alico roads. Buigas declined to comment about his plans for the property, which are still in the works.
More land grabs are expected in the coming months.
"There isn't any doubt that the market for development land has escalated, has accelerated dramatically. We saw the recent announcement of Minto at Sabal Bay. That's going to be a big deal when it closes," said Ross McIntosh, a Naples broker and housing expert.
He said other big land deals are on the verge of closing.
"There is a sense that the housing market is recovering. Not only is there a sense, but there is now evidence," McIntosh said, pointing to increased demand, falling inventory and rising prices.
While Sabal Bay only needs site plan approval, the approval and planning process for Buigas' development could take years.
The developer will take time to decide what he'll put on the land, but his plans will likely include student housing to support the growing university – and there's a chance they could include a football stadium if the university ever wants one, said Woody Hanson, a real estate consultant who is working with Buigas on the project.
"The different alternatives are being evaluated," he said. "The timeline is whatever amount of time it takes to do this right."
McIntosh said the land would be ideal for student housing because it is within walking distance of FGCU.
"Demand for housing near FGCU is one of the bright spots," he said.
Development is restricted in the area. Most of the property being purchased by Buigas falls into a density reduction groundwater recharge area, also known as DRGR, created in the more rural areas of Lee County to protect drinking water supplies. The tougher rules allow for one house for every 10 acres of uplands and one house for every 20 acres of wetlands, Hanson said.
Buigas is committed to restoring and enhancing the ecological resources on the site, particularly the water flow, Hanson said.
"He has the ability and the intent to reconnect the flow ways that are now busted," he said of Buigas.
Even with the strict rules on development, Hanson said he could see Buigas developing a cluster of neighborhoods, or villages, that are connected and surround the lakes once used for rock mining.
Others have tried to develop the land. The now-defunct Ginn Development Co., which planned to develop the site with hundreds of homes and a golf course, but those plans flopped after the red-hot housing market went bust, starting in 2006.
"I don't think anybody would even look at this property the way Ginn looked at it," Hanson said. "Mr. Buigas is going to look at the property independent of what others have done."
McIntosh said Buigas is one of only a few local developers who have come through the recession unscathed.
Buigas is the CEO of Private Equity Group LLC, which has developed more than 14,000 acres in Florida since it was founded in 1985. The company has completed more than $2 billion in real estate transactions, and it has built more than 8,000 homes and 16 shopping centers.
Gary Tasman, founder and executive director for Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Property Southwest Florida LLC in Fort Myers, said he's noticed more interest from developers and investors in land over the past 12 months, which he believes has been spurred partly by low interest rates.
Alico's sale to Buigas is the biggest since the market correction, he said.
"It's a very clear indication the market has bottomed and that the inventory of existing buildings is being swallowed up," he said.
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden