Both Pinellas County groups that submitted state applications for a limited amount of 2021 land acquisition dollars were already facing stiff competition.
Sixteen applicants statewide have asked for a combined $27.3 million from a $10 million pot of Florida Communities Trust funding.
But now, their chances of obtaining state grants to preserve greenspace are even slimmer.
The five-seat Florida Communities Trust governing board has two vacancies, because Gov. Ron DeSantis has not appointed new members. Without the four members required for a quorum, the first-quarter meeting where the board normally votes on grants has not been scheduled, according to Shannon N. Herbon, public relations manager for Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which administers the program.
Through a spokesperson, DeSantis declined to answer when he intends to fill the vacancies or whether appointments will come in time to schedule a first-quarter meeting to award grants.
“Governor DeSantis is reviewing applications for the board and will appoint individuals whom he feels will best fulfill the critical mission of the Florida Communities Trust,” press secretary Cody McCloud said in a one-sentence statement.
The Legislature over the past decade has drastically slashed funding for Florida Forever Trust Fund, the umbrella program for land conservation and acquisition.
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 eight of the last 12 years, and $10 million for all applicants statewide for 2021 awards, according to data provided by Department of Environmental Protection.
DeSantis’s proposed 2021-2022 budget has $50 million for Florida Forever but no funding for Florida Communities Trust, according to Lindsay Cross, government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters.
And the lack of a quorum to disburse the 2021 funding has created worry among local officials depending on state assistance to save greenspace from development and make it accessible to the public.
WK Preservation Group, a nonprofit formed by neighbors trying to buy 14 acres of of virgin woods on West Klosterman Road in Tarpon Springs, applied for $2 million from the state. The funds would go towards the $3 million the group needs to buy the acreage from Pinellas County Schools and combine it with the adjacent Mariner’s Point Management Area, 76 acres of non-public access land Pinellas County has conserved for three decades.
After initially putting the 14 acres out to bid to developers early last year, Pinellas Schools gave WK Preservation time to raise funds to buy the property. But the state grant was a major factor in their grassroots strategy, said WK Preservation President Tex Carter.
“It does create a problem for us,” Carter said. “I really feel like DeSantis does need to appoint people so those of us who depend on government functioning properly are able to depend on it.”
The nonprofit has raised under $100,000 towards its $3 million goal in pledges and private donations since November, but Carter said the group is pursuing $1 million in additional grants.
Pinellas County has applied for $2.4 million from Florida Communities Trust to assist in its $3.5 million contribution towards the City of Dunedin’s purchase of 44 acres on Keene Road formerly owned by the late philanthropist Gladys Douglas.
If the county receives the $2.4 million state grant, Pinellas will keep $1.5 million as a reimbursement of its $3.5 million contribution to the purchase. The remaining $900,000 in state funding would go towards preparing the property for public use, according to Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski.
If the county does not receive the state grant, the entirety of its $3.5 million contribution will go towards the $10 million purchase, which is expected to close in April.
That would leave the city with a shortage of funds for opening the park to the public, which officials had hoped for in 2023 or 2024. Currently, the city has $500,000 set aside for preparing the property, short of what it needs for a speedy opening, Bujalski said.
City staff estimated it would cost $67,000 in start up costs to buy equipment needed to maintain the park and $78,000 in personnel and operating costs to run it every year — but those figures do not include costs for delineating public trails, creating an access to the adjacent Jerry Lake and building a perimeter fence and parking lot, Bujalski said.
“The City of Dunedin wants to get the general public on the property to enjoy it as soon as humanly possible,” Bujalski said. “FCT is woefully underfunded to begin with, and now to not have a quorum on the board to look at some opportunities that could happen in the state to preserve land that the voters voted on is highly disappointing.”