In the southwest corner of Eagle Lake Park, hundreds of longleaf pines stand together. It is a thick, mini-forest of sorts. The 40-foot trees also mark the passage of time: They were planted when Pinellas County started creating the 163-acre public park. "I remember planting them as little trees,'' said Tony Contarino, the Eagle Lake park ranger. "That was about 11 years ago.'' Eagle Lake Park, named for the bald eagles that used to nest in the area, will open to the public beginning Monday, nearly a dozen years after the county bought most of the land. A grand opening celebration will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday. County Commissioner Karen Seel will speak and dignitaries from Largo and Clearwater are expected.
Homesteaded for citrus and cattle by Largo's pioneer Taylor family back in the 1850s, the land still includes hundreds of orange, grapefruit and tangerine trees. As one of the few remaining undeveloped tracts in the Clearwater-Largo corridor, plenty of wildlife have gotten used to making Eagle Lake Park their home.
"I actually saw a coyote out in the open at about 10:30 in the morning the other day,'' said Contarino, 38. "He's going to have to get used to having people around.'' So will the osprey, roseate spoonbills, hawks, fox squirrels and gopher tortoises on land and bass, bream and mallard ducks in the lakes.
Pinellas County purchased the property in two transactions. In 1998, the Taylor family sold 157 acres to Pinellas County for $13 million. In 2006, the county bought an adjacent 6 acres for $2.25 million.
Construction was completed in July 2009. But Pinellas County held off on opening the park, citing the need to save on operational expenses.
And it is because of finances that the county selected a weekday for the grand opening. "With all the budget cuts already and with the county facing another difficult budget year, we wouldn't do anything extravagant to commemorate the opening,'' said Paul Cozzie, the county's culture, education and leisure director.
On Wednesday, 16 high school students from Veritas Academy and Indian Rocks Christian School were gleaning citrus from orange trees near the center of the park as part of a school service project. "We picked 3,000 pieces of fruit,'' said Lin Weeman, a teacher from Indian Rocks Christian School. "I hope to come out again. It was a learning experience for many of the kids,'' he said.
But when the park opens, don't expect to snack on the fruit.
As with all county parks, visitors should leave all wildlife, plants and other natural objects, including Eagle Lake's fallen citrus, said Cozzie. "The county will maintain the groves, but we will also work with groups like the one from Indian Rocks to come in and gather for food banks and nonprofits.''
Although the county, with the help of Heritage Village, aims to one day turn the Taylor homestead into a living history museum, the northeast area of the park will be fenced off from the public for now. "The Taylor homestead, which included the house, part of the citrus groves and the barns, were actually all part of a separate project from the park itself. That's been delayed due to budget issues,'' Cozzie said.
Other offerings include a playground, a dog park, 2,000 feet of boardwalks over wetlands, six picnic shelters and nature trails.
And this is not the only celebration for Seel and the commission this spring. On April 26, a Monday, they will dedicate the new Belleair Beach Causeway Bridge and commemorate the opening of the new boat ramp.