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Guest column | Bob Hackworth

Past Dunedin leaders fought to save green space; so should current officials

There's a reason Dunedin is celebrated as a jewel of a community in densely populated Pinellas County. Our city boasts one of the highest averages of parkland acreage to population in Florida, thanks to the wisdom and foresight of past city leaders.

They fought for the preservation of our green spaces, wilderness and shoreline, and because they did, our residents and visitors from around the world walk through hardwoods in Hammock Park, collect shells along the beach at Honeymoon Island and enjoy the waterfront at Edgewater Drive, Marina Park and our new Weaver Park.

One of the important tools these leaders used through the years to acquire and preserve that parkland without unduly burdening taxpayers is our Land Dedication Ordinance (LDO), the first of its kind in the state.

No good reason exists to do away with Dunedin's landmark LDO, yet that is what is up for discussion at the next meeting of our current City Commission.

Here's why I believe dismantling the LDO would do a disservice to Dunedin taxpayers.

First, the LDO is based on the concept that new developments and their residents should help offset the capital costs of the expansion of our park system so as to not unfairly burden those who have paid our fair share.

The LDO requires that a fee for services, not a tax, be paid by those future residents, similar to the contribution made, by the taxpayers who already live here. The elimination or significant reduction of the LDO fee requirement would be grossly unfair to current residents.

Second, there is no evidence to suggest that the LDO fee on new development, now or in the past, has deterred new development. On the contrary, the abundance of parkland in Dunedin arguably contributes to the desirability of Dunedin to developers and future residents and to higher property values here as compared to other communities.

During my years on the City Commission, LDO trust fund monies were used in combination with grants and other public and private contributions to acquire, without spending a dime of property tax revenue, a parcel of land needed to build our new Community Center, a five-acre tract that gave Hammock Park an eastern entrance and new lake, a public golf course, and one of the last undeveloped parcels of waterfront and trailside land in the city for what became Weaver Park on St. Joseph Sound in the heart of Dunedin.

In fact, the LDO has functioned extremely well for the past 36 years and there is no reason to believe it won't continue to do so in the future.

Some critics, however, have suggested that Dunedin's abundance of parkland makes the need for additional acquisition over the next 20 years nonexistent. If our city leaders in 1975 had thought that way, we'd be the poorer for it today.

Dunedin has used the LDO innovatively and successfully. Its implementation and use is part of a proud tradition of land stewardship Dunedin city leaders have always championed.

Imagine Dunedin now if, in 1967, Mayor Gerald Rehm and the commission he led had not worked with the state to save Caladesi Island from development and later also paved the way to make Honeymoon Island a state park.

Imagine that Mayor Ed Eckert before him and the commission he led had not had the vision to purchase the land for what are now Dunedin's Highlander and Hammock parks.

Think about any of the small pocket parks and larger recreation areas throughout the city that would not exist if not for the LDO, the financing mechanism that allowed Dunedin to take the lead in making public lands available for parks and recreation instead of being lost to high-density development.

Because of those early grand efforts and our continuing creative use of the LDO, our great city has almost a third of an acre of public parkland for every man, woman and child who lives within the Dunedin city limits. That's 1,382 acres for a population of 35,321 — something to celebrate. Most of us will agree that that abundance of green space makes Dunedin the special place to live and work it is today.

Let's not do away with any part of the successful formula that made Dunedin a great community. The LDO won't keep anyone from investing in Dunedin. Rather, it helps attract the kind of careful investment and lower-density development city residents appreciate.

The LDO is good public policy. It is good fiscal policy. It will continue to allow city leaders with vision the flexibility to respond creatively to land acquisition needs and opportunities that, whether or not we can foresee them, will most certainly arise in the future.

This is a time to celebrate Dunedin's abundant park systems, not a time to average down to other communities' standards. This is a time to congratulate our leaders of the past who had the courage, wisdom and foresight to preserve and protect our green space and access to the waterfront. This is the time to extend for another 35 years the undeniable success and effectiveness of our landmark Land Dedication Ordinance, and most importantly, this is a moment for our present city leaders to reaffirm Dunedin's commitment to continued progress.

Bob Hackworth is the former mayor of Dunedin.

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Past Dunedin leaders fought to save green space; so should current officials 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 1:04pm]
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