In Florida's most densely populated county, opportunities to preserve coastal upland habitat are rare. On Aug. 8 the St. Petersburg City Council will have such an opportunity when we discuss a proposal to use the Weeki Wachee fund to buy and preserve two waterfront acres of the Rahall Estate in the Broadwater neighborhood. In 1959, when the Rahall Estate was built, there were thousands of acres of coastal upland habitat in St. Petersburg. Today that number has shrunk to only a few hundred. I favor preserving this land in its natural state for environmental and economic reasons. If we do not seize this opportunity, it will be lost for my lifetime, and possibly forever.
In its Habitat Master Plan update (June 2010), the Tampa Bay Estuary Program recognizes the importance of coastal upland habitat. This report says "Coastal Upland Habitat is an important habitat type in the Tampa Bay Watershed, and thus is recognized as a habitat of special concern that should be afforded a high level of protection."
Preserving coastal upland habitat is important because it serves as a buffer against hurricanes and floods. It also provides living area for species such as ospreys, eagles, and migrating song birds. The waters of Boca Ciega Bay, which fronts this property, provides habitat for a variety of marine species including dolphins, manatees, multiple fish species and sea turtles.
The nutrient runoff from constructing up to 15 additional homes on this property could prove detrimental to the water quality of Boca Ciega Bay, Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The water quality of Tampa Bay is not only crucial to the marine environment in which we live, it is crucial to our No. 1 industry, tourism. In recent months, Pinellas County tourism numbers have been at record levels, as measured by hotel tax receipts that are primarily paid by visitors. This entire industry, and the tax base it provides, is dependent on the waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Preserving these 2 acres of coastal uplands will enhance the Broadwater neighborhood and make it more valuable to potential new homeowners. In 2002 the American Planning Association released a study entitled "How Cities use parks for economic development," which showed that the benefits of developing outdoor open space include increased property values for individual homeowners and increased tax bases for municipalities. In St. Petersburg there is no greater example than our downtown waterfront. Because our downtown waterfront is public, property values many blocks away from the waterfront have increased. This also holds true for Central Park in New York City. The housing adjacent to Central Park increased in value by 1,500 percent during the 17 years following its construction. Today, this is some of the most valuable real estate in the entire United States. In Atlanta, condo prices adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park went from $115 per square foot before the park was built to $250 after the park was installed. I believe that preserving this acreage in Broadwater will have the same effect on surrounding properties. This will also increase the tax base available to the city for essential city services.
There is money available for this project, and preservation of sensitive lands was one of the uses of these funds approved by voter referendum in 1999, after the sale of the city-owned Weeki Wachee Springs. This money cannot be used for any purpose other than those approved by voter referendum. Acquisition and preservation of park land is clearly an acceptable use for these funds, which are available due to the foresight and vision of the 1999 City Council.
St. Petersburg has a 100-year history of preserving waterfront parks. William L. Straub was one of the pioneers who fought to preserve our downtown waterfront. Former Mayor David Fisher, while on City Council, pushed through the purchase of several large waterfront tracts, helping to complete public ownership of the downtown waterfront, as well as preserving waterfront park land in the Greater Pinellas Point neighborhood. These are only two examples of the extraordinary leadership of previous generations that allows me, and all members of the public, to enjoy our beautiful waterfront. Purchasing the Rahall Estate will continue a strong St. Petersburg tradition of environmental stewardship of Tampa Bay. I believe it is the right thing to do.