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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Cortez activist worried about real estate boom

Real estate prices in Cortez have been gradually creeping up, and some local real estate experts say the day is not too far off when Cortez real estate values, like Anna Maria Island's already, start to boom, if they haven't already.

And that's got some Cortez residents worried that investors and developers will buy the older Cortez homes to tear down and rebuild with more modern structures with a high resale value.

Cortez Historical Society treasurer and village activist Mary Fulford Green, however, said redevelopment won't be easy for the real estate investor interested only in a profit, not on preserving the village. Cortez Village is on the National Registry of Historic Places and 97 homes have been identified in the historic neighborhood.

"My understanding is that if the house is one of the 97 designated for historical preservation, you can't just tear it down. You have to make every effort to preserve it," she said.

In addition, any renovations or additions to an historic home must be approved by the Manatee County Historical Preservation Board.

"You need a permit even to renovate and there are a lot of restrictions on what you can do," Green noted.

But not all homes and lots in Cortez fall under historic preservation rules.

A commercial building on the waterfront could be torn down and a single-family home built on each available lot.

Any new house, however, still has to conform to architectural standards as established by the preservation board, Green observed, but it's definitely not true to say you can't build a new home in the district.

"So far, we've been lucky. We don't know what's going to be here in 100 years, but we still have the family atmosphere here."

Unfortunately, many of the younger Cortez fishermen can no longer afford to live in Cortez because of rising real estate values.

Cortez homeowners concerned that one day their descendants might decide to sell the property can place that house in a "Dynasty Trust" that will last for 365 years, Green said.

That's what she and her family have done with their home. It's a way of protecting Cortez from the investors of the future, she said. "I want others to know they can protect their home from greedy developers."

However, she predicted the day will come when somebody will want to acquire two or three lots on the waterfront and build a couple of large mansions, just to make a fortune.

Thankfully, many children of long-time Cortez residents are returning to their roots and living in their family homes.

"This is a family community and one of the few places in the world where nothing changes," noted Green, whose family came to Cortez from North Carolina in 1887.

Green and her compatriots feel they've done "remarkably well" in preserving Cortez.

She and her group led the fight against a proposed marina along the waterfront in the 1980s, and were instrumental in halting plans by the Florida Department of Transportation for a four-lane, high-rise bridge to replace the existing two-lane Cortez Bridge to Anna Maria Island.

The historical society played a lead role in getting the village on the National Register of Historic Places, and the accompanying zoning means no condominiums are allowed.

But those efforts haven't entirely stopped investors and real estate buyers from casting an eager eye to Cortez.

"Everybody from Bradenton Beach detours through here every day looking for a 'for sale' sign," Green claimed.

"We have shown our dedication to preservation," she added, but a lot of houses lately have been bought for some very high prices, compared to what they were worth 10 or 20 years ago.

"We can only do what we can now to halt the trend."

Green also noted that some parts of the historic district extend north across Cortez Road, but don't cover all areas.

The Harbour Landings subdivision project on the north side of Cortez Road has a number of waterfront homes and a lot of vacant land for more.

"My concern there is that 80 percent of the habitat in the Cortez area has been destroyed by the developers," said Green.

Other, older homes north of Cortez Road that are not in the district can easily be bought, torn down and rebuilt with a much larger residence.

Mike Norman of Mike Norman Real Estate in Bradenton Beach has family living in Cortez and wants to preserve the historic nature of the district.

His agency handles a few rental units in Cortez that have been renovated according to the architectural style of the village.

"We want to keep this place as a nice, quiet village for families and fishermen," said Norman, but agreed that land values are rising in Cortez.

Indeed, the Cortez land boom may already be here.

Right now, the few houses sold are being purchased as rental units or by families, but if prices continue to rise, long-time Cortez homeowners could see their retirement in their property.

"It's the same thing that's happening on Anna Maria Island," said a local real estate agent who asked not to be identified.

If you're an older Cortez resident with no retirement plan and no savings, and your home has been in your family for generations, and someone comes along and offers you $200,000 for it, "what do you do?"

A tiny little Cortez house purchased 20 years ago for less than $50,000 sold recently for $150,000, the agent claimed.

"A lot of Cortez homeowners are going to find they have a retirement fund in their real estate in the near future," the agent predicted.