Tragic Fire Unites Neighborhood in Florida Town

After Mariluz Ocasio lost her home and everything inside it in a fire last month, her neighbors stunned her with their generosity and caring.

"We received warmth and affection from everyone," said Ocasio, 40, who lives in Heritage Harbour. "They gave us clothes, food, drinks. I couldn't have picked a better place to live."

Although the massive Heritage Harbour community on State Road 64 near Interstate 75 is in its infancy, with roughly 10 percent of its expected 5,000 homes sold, there is already a feeling of community, Ocasio and her neighbors said Wednesday.

"They only had the clothes on their backs," said John Chambliss who is renting across the street from the Ocasios. "Everyone helped. People were bringing out clothes, toothbrushes, blankets."

Today, the Ocasio's house is a burnout hulk on a street of perfectly manicured homes.

Residents on Ocasio's street - Chatum Light Run in Lighthouse Cove - have planned a streetwide garage sale Saturday to help the Ocasios.

The evolution from homes on a blueprint to a community with neighbors helping neighbors starts with having a vision for the entire property, said Tony Squitieri, division president of Lennar Communities, which is building Heritage Harbour in partnership with U.S. Home Corp.

And part of that vision includes a community so large that it can support restaurants, and service businesses and other retailers, Squitieri said.

Toward that end, Lennar Corp. and U.S. Home broke ground in December on an as-yet-unnamed new section, with 152 single family homes and 56 multifamily lots in the $300,000 to $1 million price range, located in the north part of the tract, near the Manatee River.

Lennar and U.S. Home are also still making plans for a retail mall to be located along S.R. 64, near the most easterly of Heritage Harbour's three entrances, Squitieri said.

"We want to deliver commercial amenities," Squitieri said. "Do people from Heritage Harbour go to Sarasota County or stay in Manatee County? We would like to capture them in Heritage Harbour."

At least one resident can't wait for the commercial development.

"That mall can't come soon enough if it has fast food because I get pretty hungry," said Heritage Harbour resident Chance Cash, 12, who lives in Stonybrook with his parents and was swimming in the Stonybrook Recreation Campus pool Wednesday.

"It's really fun here," Chance added. "There's still enough open space that my dad has taken me four-wheelin' in his Hummer. I can swim, play basketball and go fishing in a big pond they have here. It even has alligators."

Residents like Chance and county officials seem generally pleased with what they see.

"They have a lot of recreational facilities and a diversity of residential types," said Norm Luppino of the Manatee County planning department. "It all seems to be arranged quite nicely. For the most part, we are very happy."

Besides an 18-hole golf course at Stonybrook where the Hooters Golf Tour was held, Heritage Harbour has a large recreational area called Central Park with softball fields and baseball fields to host Cal Ripkin Little League. The Stonybrook Recreational Campus has a large pool and clubhouse.

Another 18-hole golf course is planned in the northern section, Squitieri said.

Besides Stonybrook, which includes single-family homes, villas, coach homes on the golf course and condos, Heritage Harbour also has Lighthouse Cove and Heritage Harbour Apartments.

Two weeks ago, Chambliss, his wife Lisa, and Rebeka walked over to Central Park to see a Sarasota Film Festival showing of "Finding Nemo" on a huge screen.

"They are always putting on fun events like that," Chambliss said.

And their is a growing feeling of concern, one neighbor for another.

Gloria Robinson let the Ocasio family stay with her for three weeks until they could rent the house two doors down from their old one.

Chambliss' 10-year-old daughter, Rebeka, and her friend, Katelyn Solomon, also 10, decided to put up a lemonade stand a week ago at the Stonybrook Clubhouse to benefit the Ocasios. They raised $67.

"When I thought of those little girls doing that for us and I barely know them, I cried," Ocasio said. "I want to thank them all. Every day I thank God that my family is alive. I lost everything, but it could have been worse."

Residents of Chatum Light Run in the Lighthouse Cove section of Heritage Harbour are having a neighborhood garage sale 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday on their street to benefit a family who lost their belongings in a fire.

Distributed by the Associated Press