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Visionary efforts may provide valuable land to Dunedin residents

Thanks to the determination of one man and the creativity of another, Dunedin residents soon may own an open quarter-mile of land on the Intracoastal Waterway and a new park connected to the Pinellas Trail. The value of that land to future residents of Pinellas County will be immeasurable.

It was Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth who first proposed buying the so-called Weaver property along Bayshore Boulevard north of downtown, and who contacted representatives of the Florida Communities Trust to see if they would partner with the city to buy the land.

It was City Manager Rob DiSpirito who found ways to knock down every argument against the idea and put the purchase within reach.

Both men won praise from even former opponents of the purchase when the City Commission held a special public workshop Monday to unveil the purchase proposal.

"There's a thank you owed to our mayor. He took a lot of heat, but he kept going, and that is the true mark of leadership," Commissioner Deborah Kynes said.

Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski praised Hackworth and also said she called DiSpirito last Friday after reading though his 11-page purchase proposal and told him, "You are worth every penny we are paying you."

The mostly undeveloped, 5-acre Weaver property is on both sides of Bayshore Boulevard north of Main Street. The piece on the water includes a long fishing dock and a 1915 home built by revered naturalist Dr. Willis Blatchley.

The piece on the east side of Bayshore borders the Pinellas Trail and includes a circa 1935 stone house and two small houses on Lee Street.

Hackworth was concerned that both pieces might be developed and the view of the water closed off forever. But at the time he started pursuit of the properties for the city, the only appraisals that had been done assigned values of $18-million and $21-million to the land. Hackworth was persuasive enough to get city commissioners to approve continued investigation of a purchase, but some residents skewered him for the idea, saying it was too expensive and the city already had enough parkland.

Hackworth was convinced that the appraisals were unreasonably high, and he turned out to be right. The appraisers had misinterpreted the development rights on the property and also had included some slivers of land that did not belong to Weaver. When those factors were corrected, and property values declined, too, new appraisals put the value at between $5-million and $10-million. Weaver has said he will sell for no less than $7-million.

That's still a lot of money during hard times, residents said, and there would be the ongoing cost of creating the park and maintaining the property. But DiSpirito and his staff found ways to deal with every spending issue without tapping the city budget.

The Florida Communities Trust awarded the city a grant to pay 50 percent of the cost of the land, which must be matched locally. Pinellas County is willing to consider providing all of the money to match the grant, using land preservation funds, plus provide additional money to buy an available parcel on the north end of the Weaver waterfront parcel.

To create the park facilities, DiSpirito has found various potential sources of funds, including state grants, Pinellas Trails Inc. and the county's trail fund. But he also wants to create a Weaver Park nonprofit foundation that would raise money for park development.

Needing a way to pay for ongoing park maintenance, DiSpirito went to Coca-Cola, which has a plant near the Weaver property, and got a written commitment for the company to pay 100 percent of the park maintenance costs for five years. He's also talking with Coca-Cola about creating an endowment fund to provide maintenance funding in perpetuity.

Those who want to see more details of DiSpirito's purchase proposal can go to www.dunedin and click on "Weaver property information from city manager."

After hearing the details, commissioners unanimously gave DiSpirito permission to begin finalizing the financial arrangements. The County Commission still must vote to provide matching dollars, there is still some grant paperwork to do, and a final deal must be struck with J.C. Weaver.

Meanwhile, a community that was divided surely can unite now behind a plan that is exceptional in every way. Few Florida cities will ever get the opportunity to acquire for the public a quarter-mile of open waterfront. Residents should thank the visionaries whose efforts may bring this treasure home.

Visionary efforts may provide valuable land to Dunedin residents 08/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2008 1:03pm]
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