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Years of effort pay off with new park in Dunedin

DUNEDIN

For decades, the long dock off Bayshore Boulevard was private, its promises of great fishing kept off limits and under guard.

Mary Vogler knows. Since the woman known to friends as "Lil Angler" began fishing at age 11, she's been kicked off it several times, made to stomp that long walk away from the bounties of St. Joseph Sound. Sometimes she would return, piloting a Sailfish boat, hoping for a few free casts.

That was a long time ago. Tides change. On Friday afternoon, as the wind carved chops across the sound, Vogler, 31, stood on the dock and fished — no boat needed.

"This is where I escape," said Vogler, one of half a dozen casting into the water. "Where I get my relax on."

Behind her stretched a land made open: the uplands and coastline of Josiah Cephas Weaver Park. Today marks its grand opening, the end of a massive, years-long, multimillion-dollar effort to secure some of the city's last undeveloped waterfront for the public.

The park's 14 acres, split by Bayshore Boulevard, stretch to the shore of the Intracoastal Waterway and the grassland along the Pinellas Trail. Oaks and sabal and washingtonia palms form a canopy over portions of the park, which is dotted with picnic benches, grills and walking trails. A 1920s bungalow, renovated into an open-air art cottage, stands as its centerpiece.

The new park establishes Dunedin as one of Pinellas County's most environmentally conscious areas, drawing a stark contrast to the high-rises of Clearwater Beach visible on the horizon.

And yet ask some locals, including Vogler, if they thought the park would ever open, and they're likely to tell you no.

• • •

In the spring of 1913, Dr. Willis Stanley Blatchley, a former state geologist of Indiana and a renowned naturalist, bought two lots of untouched land in what was then called Skinner's Hammock.

Blatchley would spend 27 winters in his home here, with his family, writing about beetles and saw palmettos in books like My Nature Nook, named after a viewing platform he built within an old live oak.

After Blatchley died, the home with a vista of what he called Little Bay passed on to his son, Ralph, a Dunedin postmaster, and then on to developer Howard Rives. In 1981, the property was sold to a former rancher named Josiah Cephas Weaver.

Weaver, a country singer reared in the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, had moved to Dunedin in 1960 and earned his millions leasing warehouse space. The land on Bayshore Boulevard became his home. He built a long dock into the sound and, in the 1930s-era "Stone House," opened his first recording studio.

By 2004, when he moved to a mansion in Dunedin Isles, he had rebuffed hundreds of developers pushing to pave over his waterfront land with condo complexes. Instead, he offered it to the city, as one of Dunedin's last undeveloped vistas of the coast.

"The people should enjoy this land," he told the Times in 2006. "We don't need a city with black pavement."

City leaders were determined to grab it. But an early bid for funding help from the state's competitive land grant program, the Florida Communities Trust, failed, and the land's appraisal of around $18 million was way outside the city's price range. Some argued the city had enough parkland.

Over the years, with focused effort from former Mayor Bob Hackworth, City Manager Rob DiSpirito and the staff of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, the park purchase edged closer to reality. A new appraisal, conducted amid the housing bust, dropped the value to around $10 million. Weaver offered it for $7 million. And the city won two crucial grants, from the Florida Communities Trust and Pinellas County, that would split the lowered price tag.

Cue zoning and land reviews. Cue county and planner review. Cue paperwork and public appeal. In 2008, commissioners voted unanimously to buy the land at no cost to city taxpayers. A deal DiSpirito struck with Coca-Cola, which runs an orange juice concentrate plant next to the land, even covered the first five years of park maintenance.

Then came the dirty work. Demolishing the Stone House. Remodeling the 1920s bungalow into the wheat-colored art cottage. Carving out stumps, clearing underbrush and filling in hollows. Installing fences, a crosswalk and zoo-style educational plaques on manatee areas and the wetlands. Replacing the wooden footboards and building new railings on the old pilings of Weaver's 725-foot dock.

Parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi looked out across the land, forged from so much time and sweat.

"I feel," he said Friday, "like we almost built this park with our own two hands."

• • •

On Friday afternoon, in the Dunedin Fine Art Center's cottage, stonecarvers built pieces from alabaster and onyx. Across Bayshore, park caretaker Ray Bouchard chain sawed a dolphin statue out of silk oak in preparation for the park's opening.

The park is not quite complete. Gizzi and DiSpirito estimate public restrooms, picnic pavilions and a floating dock will be built over the next two years. (For now, visitors can use the art cottage's bathrooms.)

But on Friday it seemed very much alive. Many of the park's new parking spaces were filled. Dogwalkers and joggers coursed along the shell walking trail. The spin of cyclists' freewheels mixed with the putter of choppers. Scents from Eli's Bar-B-Que, between the park and downtown, wafted on the breeze.

As the afternoon ended, the wind off the coast still carved the tide. Orange bobbers and cormorants dipped and floated in the chop. And there was Vogler, the Lil Angler, ripping a striped sheepshead from the waves.

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

>>if you go

A day in the park

The park's grand opening will begin at 3:30 p.m. today at 1249 Bayshore Blvd. in Dunedin, with a local pipe band performance leading up to the ribbon cutting and formal ceremony at 4 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to carpool, ride the Jolley Trolley, or walk or bike along the Pinellas Trail to conserve parking. For information, call the Parks & Recreation Department at (727) 812-4531.

Years of effort pay off with new park in Dunedin 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 8:00pm]
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