Pinellas County smart to re-examine Dunedin land purchase

Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito is concerned. He thought Pinellas County was going to buy a waterfront lot in northern Dunedin and turn it over to the city for parkland. But recently, the county's reaction to the idea has seemed less enthusiastic.

There is a good reason for that: Much has changed in the two months since both the county administration and the city embraced the idea of making a deal for the Dunedin land. For one thing, a new county administrator has come onboard. But even more important, the economic slowdown has deepened into a recession and no one knows how deep it will be or how long it will last. Under such circumstances, the county is right to take a new measure of the pros and cons of the Dunedin land purchase.

This does not mean that purchasing the Dunedin parcel is a bad idea, or that county purchases of land for parks and preserves should be canceled. In fact, falling property values have made this an opportune time to buy land if the money is available and the property sellers are realistic about pricing.

However, caution is called for. Governments' pockets are no longer so deep. The money local governments use to buy such land often comes from fees paid by developers building projects in the community. Because of the staggering economy and lack of credit, few projects are in the pipeline in Pinellas County. Therefore, land acquisition funds will not be replenished and could be depleted rapidly. Officials need to make sure that every dollar is spent wisely.

The county already has invested several-million dollars to help Dunedin acquire the valuable Weaver property on both sides of Bayshore Boulevard north of Main Street, plus a small waterfront parcel adjoining the Weaver land. But DiSpirito was hopeful that the county would do it again on a 2.3-acre waterfront parcel farther north on Alt. U.S. 19, near the Pinellas Trail overpass. That land is owned by a Tarpon Springs couple that wants $1.5-million for it.

Fred Marquis, who recently completed a stint as Pinellas County's interim county administrator, had told DiSpirito about the property and had indicated that the county had funds to buy it for Dunedin. Negotiations with the Tarpon Springs owners were soon under way.

But Marquis is gone now, the news about the economy seems worse every day, and the county's real estate coordinator thinks the Dunedin land is overpriced. In such an environment, the county should compare the Dunedin deal with other potential land purchases and consider the pros and cons of each.

Environmental value must be one consideration. The Dunedin property is a flat, grass-covered lot with a sea wall and some mangroves along the water's edge. Compare that with, for example, the property in Tarpon Springs where Wal-Mart had planned to build a supercenter. That 74-acre property borders the Anclote River, which is a protected Florida waterway, and has mature trees, wetlands and wildlife. Wal-Mart has not put the parcel on the market, but there is widespread public interest in the county trying to obtain the parcel for a park.

Environmental value isn't the only important consideration, of course. The Dunedin property is on the Intracoastal Waterway, along a waterfront that has all but disappeared behind houses and condominiums. There is real value in preserving vacant land on an overdeveloped waterfront for the public to enjoy in perpetuity.

There are other considerations in buying land: price, location, competition with other potential buyers, time required to obtain other funding such as grants, the range of possible uses for the property, and whether those uses are lacking or in abundance where the properties are located.

In these tough times, consumers are being careful about how they spend their money. The county should be cautious, too, about when and where it spends its land acquisition funds.

Pinellas County smart to re-examine Dunedin land purchase 12/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 3:17pm]

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