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John Hubbard, Dunedin's force of nature, is retiring

Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard, 70, retires on April 1. Over his 37 years there, his advice led the city to think green.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard, 70, retires on April 1. Over his 37 years there, his advice led the city to think green.

DUNEDIN — In the 1970s, a young attorney fresh out of the U.S. Air Force faced the biggest case of his career.

Pinellas County's well-funded Contractors and Builders Association sued Dunedin for levying impact fees — charges for construction of new buildings that the group slammed as a tax.

City Attorney John Hubbard argued the fees were the builders' way to chip in, paying a fair share for water and sewer lines that otherwise would burden taxpayers.

After years of appeals and a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling was in. The impact fees, justices said, were reasonable and smartly planned. The powerhouse developers had lost. The quaint little city had won.

The landmark case set historical precedent, giving cities an advantage in the nationwide fight over future growth. It also, for some, branded Hubbard the enemy, an "anti-development" activist stubbornly stuck in the past.

"I considered the criticism an absolute compliment," Hubbard said last week. "I quit worrying about my popularity a long time ago."

Decades after his Supreme Court win, Hubbard, 70, remains a force of nature. In his 37 years as Dunedin's attorney, the self-described tree-hugger has helped establish the city as an island of green thinking in a county infamous for overgrowth.

Hubbard plans to step down April 1, capping one of the longest city attorney terms in the state. (The longest: Herbert Darby, 91, serving Lake City since 1952.) Tom Trask, a partner in Hubbard's private law firm will replace him while the city searches for a new attorney.

The typical city attorney offers legal opinions and helps write city ordinances. In many cities, the attorney is mainly advisory, meagerly influential, often embattled and easily replaced.

Hubbard, however, transformed the job over decades into a position of public power. City leaders, for better or worse, often called him the "sixth commissioner."

He did it, he said, with help from an unlikely source:

The strength of the word "no."

• • •

Hubbard was born in Carroll, Iowa, a small town on the Middle Raccoon River. He grew up in Millstone, N.J., population 250. He spent much of his childhood in the woods, trapping muskrats.

In 1922, his grandparents moved to Dunedin from Puerto Rico, where his grandfather ran a pineapple plantation. Hubbard summered with them often, falling in love with Old Florida. He caught his first fish near the city marina, on a pier into St. Joseph Sound. He pedaled his bicycle after the mosquito-control truck, baited by the sweet smell of DDT.

In the late '60s, after graduating from the University of Florida law school, Hubbard enlisted with the Air Force during the thick of the Vietnam War. He worked for the Office of Special Investigations, in New York and New Jersey, shadowing men on the subway. The military, he said, taught him resolve: "If you got up early and worked hard," he said, "you could accomplish anything."

In 1973, he returned to the practice of law, taking on the city of Oldsmar as his first municipal client. There he exhibited one of his early moments of legal resistance, telling city leaders that a developer's plans were a sham. He left City Hall to a standing ovation.

He climbed the Dunedin dais the next year, stretching his victory on impact fees into a platform for progressive policies. The city banned billboards, established landscaping rules and adopted a strict tree ordinance. Developers who cut down trees but didn't replant new ones faced steep fines. Some were even prosecuted.

"John was a very self-confident young man," said Manny Koutsourais, a longtime Dunedin commissioner and former mayor. "He was very assertive about every decision."

The rules, builders said, made dealing with the city a labyrinthine chore, and Hubbard became a figurehead for the city's rigidity. Some said his legal opinions veered more toward personal preference.

"He had a passion that sometimes might have clouded his objectivity," said former Mayor Bob Hackworth. "He understood it, and we called him out on it."

Though he admitted he could be "preachy," Hubbard remains mostly unapologetic. The city's successes, like helping resurrect downtown, arose from "good ordinances, tough ordinances, that required people to do the right thing," he said during a city interview. The city had a vision, he said, and so did he.

"Some people believe you should put a condo on everything," he said. "I believe in trees."

• • •

A second-baseman cut by cleats during a city softball tournament. A boater who slipped on a dock. A woman bitten on the butt by a raccoon that sneaked into her bedroom.

Each has threatened to sue the city. Each time Hubbard shot back. No case went to trial.

"Part of what I do is say no. I have to do that. Everybody wants to be Mother Teresa and always say yes, because that makes people like you," he said. "Any lawyer that won't tell you the truth and say no when it needs to be said, isn't worth having. If I needed to say no, I said no. If I needed to be unpopular, I was unpopular."

Hubbard speaks authoritatively and with the haste of an auctioneer. He rarely sugarcoats. From the other side of a courtroom, his presence can be intimidating.

"He was never my yes man. He didn't hold back one bit," said former City Manager John Lawrence, who worked with Hubbard for 21 years. "I sometimes wonder, without his counsel ... how much trouble I could have gotten myself into."

There are softer sides to Hubbard, though, that aren't seen often at City Hall. He is an avid fisherman. He devours murder mysteries. He is a master woodworker, building red-oak hope chests for some of his four daughters and five grandchildren. His youngest daughters, twins Jennifer and Natalie, were born at Mease Dunedin Hospital 32 years ago, during a commission meeting.

His private firm, Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt, Trask & Yacavone, works out of a red-brick office on Main Street, ringed by live oaks and maples he planted that tower to the rooftop. He works mainly out of a conference room, spreading case law across a table his father built from Philippine mahogany.

He is a stickler for the state's Sunshine Law, coaching new politicians on public records and open government. In his private practice he advises on wills and trusts, helping to steer millions of dollars to public use. Last year, his friend and client, Louis Flack, bequeathed $1 million to the Dunedin Fine Art Center, nearly doubling its budget.

Excluding video-chats with his son-in-law, an Army doctor in Afghanistan, he has used a computer only once. His wife of 18 years, Barbara, walked him through sending an e-mail to family.

During his retirement, he would like to volunteer as a guardian ad litem, representing neglected children. He'd also like to build a home workshop and maybe catch some snook.

He lives on 2 acres bordering the city's Hammock Park, in a home wrapped in hickory and oak trees. Parts of his property remain untouched.

"I sit out there and look at the trees," he said, "and think how very lucky I am."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

John Hubbard, Dunedin's force of nature, is retiring 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 3:29pm]

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