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In deal for gulf land, owner holds cards

As the county and developers await word, only the McMullen family knows what will become of 120 undeveloped acres on the Pinellas coast.

Daniel G. McMullen Jr. points his sport utility vehicle along a sandy road through acre after acre thick with slash pines and oak trees, toward the real jewel of the property: a spectacular gulf-front view to the left, right and center.

"Brand-new sunset every day," McMullen says with a smile in his easy Southern drawl.

In all, the roughly 120-acre property owned in part by McMullen and in part by his family boasts more than 2 miles of waterfront. The pristine coastal property, blessed with two points pushing into the gulf, is south of Klosterman Road and north of Indian Bluff Island.

This largely untouched property represents by far the largest privately owned, vacant and developable gulf-front land in the county.

It is hard to imagine such a property even exists in densely developed Pinellas County. Developers salivate.

Most of the major players _ U.S. Home Corp., Arvida and the like _ have come calling.

McMullen, of the famous Pinellas County pioneer family, is listening.

Complicating the matter is another, very interested party. Every year since 1973, Pinellas County has sent a letter to the McMullen family expressing its interest in buying the property to add to the as-yet-unopened Wall Springs Park.

The 91-acre Wall Springs property west of Alt. U.S. 19 and north of Alderman Road is slated to receive nearly $1-million worth of improvements and become a major county park.

Two years ago, the McMullen family responded to those letters, saying they were finally ready to talk.

The county got two independent appraisals, which, according to McMullen, came back at $6-million, and presented them to McMullen.

He said he walked out.

"Why would you waste my time?" he said. "Call again," he told them, "if you all want to talk like you've got some sense."

McMullen said that, all in all, he would prefer the property be developed as a park rather than as high-rise condos or a residential development, but the county's offer was far below private offers he received.

In fact, he provided the county with four written contracts from private developers to buy the land for between $14.5-million and $19.5-million.

But according to County Administrator Fred Marquis, those offers are contingent upon McMullen's unrealistic assumption that the property can be developed with 500 units.

The county hired a land planner, who determined that even if the property were uniformly zoned under the county's land use plan, a developer would be able to put only 236 units there.

Part of what constrains the density, Marquis said, is that Alt. U.S. 19 is an F-rated road, meaning it is already overburdened.

Under the land planner's development assumptions, the county sought new appraisals, which came in much higher than the first _ $12-million, according to McMullen _ but still far below what McMullen believes is the property's actual worth.

Marquis said the county is bound to pay only what an independent appraiser has deemed its fair market value. The county has provided a list of appraisers to McMullen, should he wish to obtain one on his own.

"So far, they have chosen not to do that," Marquis said. "It's in his court."

McMullen believes the county is squeezing him on the density issue, purposely lowering the number of units to devalue the property and thereby make its offer more attractive.

"It's kind of like extortion," McMullen said.

McMullen first discovered the coastal Palm Harbor property in an aerial photo. He pestered the elderly owner of the roughly 25-acre property around a mangrove area called Danenman Point for a number of years before finally sealing a deal to buy it in 1971.

"I was just looking for a place to get out of town, to run my dogs," said the Clearwater native.

Later, the developers of Baywood Village to the north offered to sell a large pot-shaped piece of gulf-front property that adjoined McMullen's property. It was purchased by the McMullen family: Dan; his brother Paul McMullen, owner of the family oil business; sisters Linda Davidson and Laura Weikle; and his father, D. Guy McMullen.

That property includes a fingerlike point that juts into the gulf. It was created, McMullen said, when two small islands were joined with fill from a dredge operation during the mid-1950s.

In all, McMullen said, he and his family spent just under $1-million for the properties.

"Us McMullens, we'd rather be lucky than smart," McMullen said.

McMullen is the sole resident of the property, other than tenants who rent a home on his land on the south side of Wai-Lani Road.

His home, which is not visible from the entrance to the property, sits just east of Danenman Point.

It is surrounded by boats of all sizes. An avid fisherman, McMullen boasts "a boat for each kind of fish I go after. I think I'm down to a dozen."

On the other point located on the McMullen property is a "weekender" family home, used mostly for parties. They host political barbecues there, such as a recent North Pinellas Republican Club fundraiser. McMullen, a former one-term Democratic state representative in the 1960s, switched party allegiances after Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

A long wooden dock extends from the property, providing a perfect opportunity to unwind with a glass of wine after a hectic day, McMullen said.

The downstairs of the weekender home has an outdoor kitchen, surrounded by a number of picnic tables. The family can entertain up to 350 comfortably, McMullen said. There is even water and electrical hookups for 12 campers.

The property also is home to about a dozen cows, which provide the family with a greenbelt exemption, thereby greatly reducing their property tax burden.

Other portions of the property are thick with oak trees, amid which fox squirrels romp.

"In Florida, more often than not you need a little shade," McMullen said. "You just see picnic city here. I would like for it to be a park."

At 65 years old, McMullen, retired and divorced last year, feels as if he has more history than future these days.

"I'm only now thinking about getting rid of it," he said.

But he would like to retain his home.

"So far as I know, I've got good health," McMullen said. "I can still throw a cast net for bait."

It may be that only the family holdings will be sold, he said, and he would retain his 25-acre homestead. Or, he might consider selling to the county if they would give him a lifetime estate to become the county's when he dies.

Marquis said that could be arranged.

There are only a few hundred acres of developable land left in all of Pinellas County, said Mike Evans of the county Property Appraiser's Office.

McMullen's property is the largest privately owned, vacant parcel on the gulf, he said, but he was referring just to McMullen's personal holdings of about 25 acres.

Combine that with the rest of the family holdings there, Evans said, and it is undoubtedly the largest developable waterfront property in the county. County officials believe buying it would protect a sensitive environmental property.

"The No. 1 reason is to preserve it as green space to a major degree and not build it as another suburb," said Carl Barron, director of general services for the county.

"It's a very nice, environmentally sensitive property," Marquis said, "that would be a nice addition to Wall Springs Park."

"There's no question the county is very interested," said Barron. "If, in fact, it becomes available and it's within a price range the county could afford, we'd love to have it."

Not everyone thinks a county purchase is a hot idea.

"Do we really need another major park?" asked Rodney F. Fischer, executive director of the Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County.

While the property may be tenuously connected to Wall Springs Park, Fischer said, it would be a stretch to call them adjacent.

"My opinion is, let's develop Wall Springs and get that up and running before we look to buy another piece of property for the park," he said.

If there were some endangered species to protect, that would be one thing, Fischer said, but it's not government's place to buy property simply to thwart development.

"I don't think that's the role of government," Fischer said.

Besides, he said, it could make for a very attractive residential development with lots of green space _ and taxpaying residents.

"It's a gorgeous piece of property," Fischer said. "And what's great about it is that it's nice and open. The opportunity is there to build a very nice development, and leave some open space to make it a showpiece."

Fischer also objects to county tactics to restrict the number of units, thereby devaluing the property. The property is big enough to easily handle 400 to 500 high-end units, he said.

"They (county officials) have the ability to strong-arm somebody into that kind of position, which I think is wrong," Fischer said.

Meanwhile, McMullen said the county's window of opportunity may soon be closing.

"We're at the final stage of signing a contract with a developer," McMullen said, but refused to name the developer.

McMullen said he is just trying to get a fair price for the property.

"You only get one bite of the apple when you've got a piece of property," McMullen said. And while he would love to sell it to the county as a park, he said, "They just haven't been straight."

Barron said McMullen holds all the cards.

"It's under a lot of development pressure, we understand that," Barron said of the property. "It's up to the seller if they want to work with us."