DUNEDIN — Too green or not too green?
That's the question the Dunedin City Commission will tackle Thursday when it discusses the fees that developers pay to subsidize the purchase of parkland and other green space in the city.
At issue is Dunedin's Land Dedication Ordinance. Since 1975, the ordinance has required owners of new residential developments containing five or more housing units to either include green space for their residents or contribute to a city fund for future Dunedin parks projects. The fee is based on the property's value.
At least one commissioner, David Carson, says he's had "a number of people" tell him the fees deter developers from investing in Dunedin. That's because several nearby communities either don't charge LDO fees or charge a flat rate, he said.
Furthermore, Carson noted, the ordinance requires that Dunedin maintain 6 acres of open recreational space for every 1,000 residents.
When public city parks, private subdivision parks, school playgrounds and other green space is factored in, Dunedin currently has more than 13 acres of parks per 1,000 people. That number jumps to 39 acres when the state-owned and -operated Caladesi and Honeymoon Island parks are included — proof, Carson says, that the city has more than enough green space.
In short, Carson says, it's time to eliminate the LDO altogether or, at the very least, require all 35,000 of the city's residents to contribute to future park space rather than just the newbies.
"We're talking out of both sides of our mouth: We want economic development but we're going to tax the hell out of you if you come to town," Carson said.
"When things pick back up, I want us to be competitive for developers … so they don't decide to go someplace else," he continued. "I want us to be right in the front, not in the back, of developers' minds."
The argument has hit a nerve with several current and former city leaders.
Among them is retired city attorney John Hubbard, who drafted the LDO ordinance nearly 40 years ago.
At the time, Hubbard said, Dunedin was at the forefront of new state legislation giving cities the okay to levy water and sewer impact fees against new developers. Expanding on that trend, Dunedin became one of the first Florida cities to establish LDO fees.
"What we were doing then is (to) try to make new residents who were coming into town responsible for their proportionate share of capital expenditures or parkland because they came in and put a bigger burden on what was already there," he said.
The alternative, he said, would have been paying for parks with a bond issue or higher taxes, which passes along the cost to everyone: "That means the old residents pick up more of a burden because of the appearance of new people … whereas the LDO fee is only paid by the new people coming aboard."
The current commission discussed the ordinance's history at a workshop in March 2011, then again at a February commission meeting.
Commissioner Julie Scales believes the need for green space remains strong, as evidenced by a recent community survey aimed at shaping a new brand image for the city. Dunedin's natural assets — like parks, beaches and the Pinellas Trail — consistently ranked as a top draw for residents.
She wants city leaders to first discuss their vision for future development and redevelopment before addressing the LDO. She says that, depending on the type of development that leaders want to encourage, they might consider changes such as providing incentives encouraging investors to provide green space within their developments that the public could enjoy.
City staffers provided a list of possible options to discuss Thursday. Those include changing the way LDO fees are calculated, allowing the money to be used for construction of park amenities like ballfields or buildings, or leaving the ordinance as it is.
"I'm glad the issue has come up," Scales said. "It's an opportunity for us to think about the future of the city. I don't think it's an opportunity for us to take a hatchet to it."
Former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth, who has written multiple newspaper editorials on the issue, touts J.C. Weaver Park as an LDO success story.
While the city used grants, rather than LDO money, to build the park, Hackworth believes Dunedin's ranking for those grants was based partly on the city's good history of providing green space.
Citizens, he said, should "celebrate" that Dunedin has so much green space despite living in one of the most built-out counties in Florida.
Carson noted that it's very expensive to maintain Dunedin's abundance of parkland, which is property that's essentially lost from the city's tax rolls: "At some point you have to ask how much is enough."
Hubbard countered that Dunedin's "extraordinarily good park system" actually benefits developers, who can charge top dollar for units located in an attractive locale.
The market, not LDO fees, determines when and where investors build, he said. So as the economy improves, he said, eliminating the LDO only stands to make developers wealthier because there are fewer fees to consider when building here.
"Why should we encourage some cheapskate who doesn't want to pay an impact fee to develop in Dunedin, especially when everybody else has already paid their dues? Suddenly this person gets in for free?" Hubbard said. "That's nuts."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.