Separate groups representing two environmentally sensitive properties in Pinellas County that are at risk of development want to draw down from the same pot of state preservation grants.
Meeting Tuesday’s application deadline, the WK Preservation Group asked Florida Communities Trust for $2 million towards $3.1 million needed to buy 14 acres of virgin woods on West Klosterman Road in Tarpon Springs. After a group of neighbors found out Pinellas County Schools was preparing to sell the land to a developer in January, school officials gave the residents time to form their own nonprofit and come up with the money to buy the land.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County and the City of Dunedin also submitted a joint application to help in their $6 million bid for purchasing 44-acres along Keene Road owned by the estate of the late Gladys Douglas. The city and county are asking the state for $2.4 million and will evenly split the remaining $3.6 million, according to Pinellas County senior grant specialist Jennifer Calvert.
With only $10 million in the Florida Communities Trust this year, the two Pinellas-based applications would drain half of the pot available statewide. The Department of Environmental Protection, which administers the program, received eight applications as of Tuesday, according to deputy press secretary Alexandra Kuchta.
The Legislature over the past decade has drastically slashed funding for Florida Forever, the umbrella program for land conservation and acquisition, creating tight competition for limited funds amid ever-disappearing green space.
Between 2000 and 2008, the Florida Communities Trust segment, which local governments and the public can tap to acquire land, received $66 million a year. It had no funding in seven of the last 11 years, and $10 million for all applicants statewide in 2020, according to data provided by Department of Environmental Protection.
“It’s had a really chilling effect on new financing measures for land conservation,” said Will Abberger, director of conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land, one of the nation’s leading conservation nonprofits. “As Florida continues to grow and develop with a thousand people moving here a day, those lands, particularly the types of properties the Florida Communities Trust protects, are being lost to developers.”
Pinellas, the state’s most densely populated county, has a list of about 60 properties on its preservation wish list, but only $15 million dedicated over the next 10 years for acquisitions. Earlier this month, a home builder bought one of the properties on the list, 14 acres just west of the southern end of the Bayside Bridge in unincorporated Pinellas.
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On Tuesday, the Tarpon Springs City Commission heard a developer’s plan to build 404 apartment units on about 74 acres of undeveloped land on the Anclote River. The property was also on the county’s list.
Tex Carter, the president of The WK Preservation Group, said the group originally intended to submit its state application in conjunction with Pinellas County. But after a developer walked a way from a contract to buy the 44-acre Douglas property in October, community uproar convinced the county to throw its resources behind acquiring that land instead.
The county, however, provided a letter of support for WK Preservation’s $2 million application, pledging to assume ownership and responsibility in maintaining the property if the group is able to buy it. The 14 acres sit about 1,000 feet east of the Gulf of Mexico and directly south of the Mariner’s Point Management Area, 76 acres of non-public access land Pinellas County has conserved for three decades.
Carter said the group is seeking additional grants and private donations to meet its $3.1 million goal. It has already raised about $20,000 in donations and about $100,000 worth of foundation support for costs like advertising.
“We truly do need someone to come forward and give us a big donation in order to get the ball rolling,” treasurer Kay Carter said.
As Pinellas and Dunedin submitted its application to the state for the 44 acres on Keene Road, officials were continuing negotiations with the Douglas estate.
Last week, the local governments received new appraisals on the property in unincorporated Pinellas that ranged between $5.52 million and $5.55 million.
Dunedin City Manager Jennifer Bramley said the appraisals were based on the property’s current one unit per acre development rights it would have if annexed into the city, a requirement for any utilities. A 2018 appraisal the city obtained based on a rezoning that would have allowed 134 units came in at $11.7 million.
Pulte Homes was under contract for $14.5 million before walking away in October because “a mutually beneficial agreement (did) not appear possible at this time in the timeframe mandated by the seller,” according to a statement from the developer.
The governments’ application states the total project cost is $6 million but Bramley wouldn’t say what she offered to the Douglas estate or how negotiations were going.
An anonymous couple also pledged $2 million toward the property in November, but the application does not factor that into the available funding. Bramley said she “wanted the (Florida Communities Trust grant) not to be contingent on anything.”
She said the community activism for this project, which has resulted in sign waving in front of the property, constant calls and emails to elected officials, and interest from environmentalists across the state, has helped with momentum.
“This is an intergenerational imperative,” Bramley said. “We’re very appreciative of the community and how they pulled together to preserve this property and the city and county are working very well with the community at this point to purchase the property.”