CLEARWATER — Found near the center of Florida's most densely populated county, the land around Lake Chautauqua represents a rarity: open wilderness.
But keeping it that way isn't cheap. Applying for a state grant to acquire more land near the lake could end up costing the city up to $1.6 million.
Parks and recreations director Kevin Dunbar is asking for the City Council's approval to apply for a land preservation grant under the Florida Forever program. For years, the program has helped cities buy undeveloped land for public use. A similar grant helped the city's northern neighbor, Dunedin, open the waterfront Weaver Park this month.
Dunbar said the grant could help buy 20 acres near the city's 41-acre Lake Chautauqua Park, extending the parkland between U.S. 19 and McMullen-Booth Road. The park sits next to horse stables, the Boy Scouts' Camp Soule and the 27-acre Lake Chautauqua Equestrian and Nature Preserve, bought in 2008 with $3.7 million from the city and the Florida Communities Trust.
Council members discussed the issue at a work session Tuesday and will vote on it at their meeting Thursday night. Most of them appear to favor the idea.
If the city was chosen for a Florida Forever grant, Dunbar said, the state would pay for 60 percent of the land, which likely costs between $3 million and $4 million.
The problem? To pay the remaining 40 percent, the city would need to draw from its park impact fees fund — which is empty. Officials drained it to pay for land on Drew Street next to the Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex, said assistant city manager Jill Silverboard.
That means that if the city did win the grant, it would be on the hook for up to $1.6 million from some other source.
Council member Paul Gibson didn't have much faith that the impact fund, which developers pay into, would refill anytime soon. "About the only crane I've seen around here has been stuff the city's building," Gibson said. "The private sector's building nothing."
Dunbar said the application is just the first step in a process that would take about two years to play out. The land's price could change with a more recent appraisal, as it did at Weaver Park. And in two years, if the city does win a grant, the council would not be required to accept or match the grant if the cost was still too high. "We just want to get ourselves in the line right now," Dunbar said. "Nothing is going to obligate us."
The city is promised at least some state money at the park this year. The state's Recreational Trails Program is splitting a $400,000 project with the city that will install a parking lot, benches and a 2-mile shell trail for horse riders, hikers and mountain cyclists. Access to the new Lake Chautauqua trails should be open by October, Dunbar said.
Florida Forever's future is a little more doubtful. Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget, released last week, would not fund the program at all, making him the first governor to zero out the program since it launched as "Preservation 2000" in 1990. Last year, Florida Forever received $15 million — greatly slashed from its former standard of $300 million a year.
Some council members said applying for the grant, as it operates now, only makes sense. Vice Mayor John Doran said he would let the council make the decision in two years if the grant is too costly. "I think we should reserve the right to change our minds later," he said.
Mayor Frank Hibbard also lent his support, saying that protecting open land from dense development could be worth the pursuit.
"If you've lived in the county for a long time, you remember when McMullen-Booth was a two-lane road with ranches on both sides," Hibbard said. "This is a unique opportunity for a future council. … To let that opportunity pass is foolishness."
Contact Drew Harwell at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.