CLEARWATER — In the densely populated landscape of Countryside, Lake Chautauqua Park and an adjoining nature preserve are a 70-acre oasis of wilderness and serenity.
Clearwater officials decided Thursday night to carve some horseback riding and hiking trails through this patch of nature, and possibly to acquire more land for it.
That's going to cost some taxpayer money — some of it from the state, some from Clearwater. And that prompted a conservative critic of the City Council to ask them to reconsider. But council members say the expense is worth it.
There are two separate things going on with Lake Chautauqua Park:
• The City Council voted unanimously to accept a $200,000 grant from the state's Recreational Trails Program to construct a 2-mile-long shell trail for horse riders, walkers and mountain bikers. The city must kick in $200,000 of matching funds from Penny for Pinellas sales taxes.
• Council members decided to allow the city to apply for a Florida Forever land preservation grant. Clearwater would use this grant to buy 20 acres of undeveloped land at a stable on Union Street that's connected to the park's southeastern corner. The city might have to kick in more than a million dollars in matching funds, but it's not obligated to go through with the deal if it turns out to be too expensive. If Clearwater actually gets the state grant in a couple of years, then a future City Council would make this decision.
It was the first part — the $400,000 shell trail — that ticked off conservative activist Joe Paige.
Paige, who has routinely been questioning City Council spending decisions, took issue with the trail at Thursday night's council meeting.
"We need more trails in Clearwater like a moose needs a hat rack. How many trails is enough?" he said. "We have enough trails. We have enough parks. We have enough preserves, reserves, areas of special interest."
City officials defended the decision. They explained in more detail the reasons to create the trail.
In 2008, the city bought 27 acres of woodland just south of the nearly 45-acre Lake Chautauqua Park, which is between U.S. 19 and McMullen-Booth Road south of Enterprise Road.
To do that, officials used about $2 million in city impact fees and a $1.5 million grant from the Florida Communities Trust. Like Florida Forever, the trust is another state effort to preserve green space.
When it awarded the grant, the Florida Communities Trust required a management plan for the 27 acres, which is now called the Lake Chautauqua Equestrian and Nature Preserve. That plan calls for the city to put in some trails to open up more of this isolated, wooded area to the public, said Kevin Dunbar, the city's director of parks and recreation.
Aside from the shell trail, the project also includes benches and a new parking lot. The 27-acre property used to be part of the Boy Scouts' Camp Soule, and the Scouts cut some rough trails through there many years ago.
"It's basically in its natural state," Dunbar said of the property. "There's a series of unimproved trails that run throughout it, and this cleans those up."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.