Maybe Dunedin officials should go into the real estate business. They seem to possess a particular skill for making deals. Thanks to that skill, Dunedin has the opportunity to acquire land for a second waterfront park, and without spending any tax revenue. City commissioners should grab the opportunity when they meet Thursday to vote on the proposed purchase.
The flat, grass-covered, mostly treeless 2.3-acre property is special because of its location: on St. Joseph Sound next to the Pinellas Trail overpass that spans Alt. U.S. 19. The property has 400 feet of shoreline on a sheltered cove, where city officials envision a launching area for kayaks and canoes. They eventually would install landscaping, a picnic shelter and a shell parking lot, making the park useful for picnicking, sunset viewing and as a Pinellas Trail rest stop.
The city has pursued purchase of the few remaining parcels of mainland waterfront property since former mayor Bob Hackworth was in office. The city first sought the so-called Weaver property, which is located on both sides of Alt. U.S. 19 just north of downtown, adjoins the Pinellas Trail and includes a long pier out into St. Joseph Sound. Thanks to the creativity of City Manager Rob DiSpirito, the city cobbled together a purchase plan that didn't utilize any city tax dollars. Grants and state and county funds were used, and the property is now being developed into a city park.
After that purchase, the city heard from Dale Bleakley, owner of the 2.3-acre property near the Pinellas Trial overpass on the city's northern border. Bleakley wanted to sell his property to the city for $1.5 million, but the city couldn't afford it. When an appraisal ordered last month showed a value of $1,075,000, Bleakley lowered the asking price to $1 million.
DiSpirito's goal, as it was with the Weaver property, was to avoid using local tax dollars for the purchase. The city's Land Dedication Ordinance fund was a good source of money for the purchase. That fund is derived from fees residential developers must pay when they build their projects, and the fund can only be used to provide recreation and park land for all city residents. But only $775,000 was available in the fund.
That's when city officials' thoughts turned to Sallie Guthrie. She first came forward after the city acquired the Weaver property. Guthrie said she would give the city $150,000 to help pay for Weaver Park improvements if the city would vacate Spring Street, a narrow, dead-end street on the west side of Alt. U.S. 19 that is surrounded by Guthrie's property.
The city had no use for Spring Street but couldn't make the deal because the city charter allows disposal of public property on the waterfront only if it is swapped for other waterfront property.
Commissioner Julie Scales realized that Spring Street could be swapped to acquire the Bleakley property, but Guthrie would have to donate a larger sum. She upped her contribution to $250,000, making the purchase of the Bleakley property possible without any expenditure of tax dollars.
Some residents have argued that officials should not buy property now when the city budget is being continually trimmed because tax revenue is down. But there are several reasons to go ahead with the purchase.
First, the land may never be cheaper. It was valued at $2.9 million just two years ago. The city has a chance to acquire it now for $1 million and to do so without draining city coffers of tax dollars needed for public services.
In addition, the land currently is zoned for residential development. It is bordered on one side by the Mediterranean Manor condominium complex and on the other by a marina. It is prime waterfront land that may be snatched up for private development when the economy improves.
The Bleakley land is the last major undeveloped parcel on Dunedin's mainland waterfront. It would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to acquire it now, at a good price, for future generations of Dunedin residents.