There are a lot of things residents of the neighborhoods River Wilderness and Rivé Isle could boast about — beautiful houses in a natural setting, an 18-hole golf course, a clubhouse, tennis courts.
But the one thing that sets the 1,400-acre, 715-home, gated development apart from all the rest, residents say, is its sense of community.
"People were waving when we came in. I knew this is where I wanted to live," said Barbara Kappauf, a New Jersey native and six-year resident.
"About 55 percent of the community is retired or semiretired. Forty-five percent are still working," said Don Kappauf, Barbara's husband.
"There is a younger group of people moving in as the economy drives down prices. People are looking for a safe place to raise children," he added.
Bill Vernon, general partner of Rivé Isle Associates, said he bought the development, which at the time had 400 to 500 houses, in 1996. Although there were building lots left in the main development, Vernon had his eye on the land in the back, the land on the Manatee River.
"It's so rare to find a truly unique piece of land on the Manatee River. I knew there was something we could do with it," he said.
"The property had no value. It was unbuildable because it was in a flood plain."
But Vernon was not to be deterred. It took him five years to get all the permits — including final approval from the governor — but he did it and there are now 12 luxury waterfront homes in Rivé Isle Golf & Nautical Estates, which, with dredging, was raised out of the flood plain.
Of the 178 lots in Rivé Isle, 150 are waterfront — and the neighborhood has direct access to the Gulf of Mexico, 15 miles to the west by way of the Manatee River.
"It's one of the few places you can have a boat in your back yard," Vernon said.
Water is all around River Wilderness and Rivé Isle. Between the two neighborhoods, there are 400 acres of rehydrated wetlands.
"The wetlands rejuvenation was a big factor in getting the project approved," Vernon said.
Homes in the development range from $200,000 to the millions. Homeowners pay an annual homeowners association fee of $1,035. Golf memberships are available for initiation fees starting at $1,000 and going to about $20,000.
Buyers are starting to come back, Vernon said, but the market has changed what those buyers want.
They want to buy a house that is already built rather than to buy a lot and have a house custom-built, he said. As a result, he has four spec homes — one for $800,000 — under construction.
Buyers also are looking for smaller homes, 3,500 square feet instead of 5,000 square feet.
"The key amenity buyers are looking for today — and will be for some time — is price."
Patti Ewald is a freelance writer in Gulfport. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Barbara and Don Kappauf
Their home: 3 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, 3,600 square feet. The house is on a corner lot and looks over one of the many small lakes in the development.
When they bought: They purchased their lakeside lot in 2004 and designed the home to mimic places they have stayed in Hawaii where they looked through the lobby out across the water.
Current value (from Zillow.com): $504,500.
Why they love it: "The golf course we have is a hidden jewel. There is a remodeled clubhouse, an athletic building and tennis courses. I can go down to Rivé Isle and catch 30-inch snook," Don Kappauf said. "There's nothing around here people don't do for one another." Added Barbara: "I love my home but I love the community. It's nice, casual and laid back but you can be busy 24/7 if you want. There are things like book clubs and mah-jongg groups." Another appealing aspect of the neighborhood is a common refrain among real estate professionals: location. "We are 45 minutes from anything you want to do," Barbara Kappauf said.