In urban Florida, the state's land conservation program can seem to be an abstraction. But a new waterfront park in Dunedin is a reminder that Florida Forever serves more purposes than providing money for huge tracts of critical watersheds. After two years of radical cuts, it's time to reinvest in Florida to ensure its natural beauty is preserved for future generations. Gov. Rick Scott should make that priority clear to lawmakers when he presents his proposed budget next month.
Weaver Park, a sliver of land straddling U.S. Alt. 19 just north of downtown Dunedin in Pinellas County, offers the public arresting views of Caladesi Island, a wooden fishing pier into St. Joseph Sound and other recreation options. The city purchased the six acres of prime real estate for $7 million in 2008 — but only after it secured help from the county and a $3.5 million grant from the Florida Communities Trust. The trust receives roughly one-fifth of all Florida Forever proceeds for community parks and open spaces. An official opening of the improved park is set for Saturday.
Such a deal for Dunedin residents and visitors would likely not have been possible in the past two years — despite the collapse of the real estate market (which helped Dunedin pay about $10 million less than the buyer originally sought). In 2009-10, the Florida Legislature provided no funding for Florida Forever acquisitions. This year, just a measly $15 million was set aside — far below the onetime standard $300 million. And with the state facing another budget shortfall of at least $3.6 billion, there's no certainty Florida Forever will survive.
But Scott should find a way and persuade the Legislature to go along. Floridians overwhelmingly support the program and its predecessor, Preservation 2000. Since 1990, the two programs have preserved more than 2.4 million acres of recreation and conservation land, making the fast-growing state a national leader.
This is an issue that crosses partisan and ideological lines. Four former governors, Democrats Reubin Askew and Bob Graham, Republicans Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush, have lent their names to the Florida Forever Coalition. Scott, on the campaign trail, said he understood the value of conservation land for the state's long-term future. Now he needs to follow through on that commitment.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The City of Dunedin received a $3.5 million grant from the Florida Communities Trust toward the purchase of Weaver Park, which straddles U.S. Alt. 19 just north of downtown. A Sunday editorial incorrectly stated the park's location and the size of the grant.