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City leaders may have chance to save land near Hammock Park

Dunedin resident Pat Higgins, 69, holds a sign during a protest outside Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church’s May 29 morning Mass. [MEGAN REEVES | Times]
Published Jun. 11, 2016

DUNEDIN — Nature-loving residents took on the Catholic Church and City Hall in recent weeks over an 8-acre piece of land — and it seems now they may be winning.

The property, adjacent to Hammock Park, is owned by the church, which has a contract to sell it to developers from Taylor Morrison Homes for a housing project. But after a meeting between church and city leaders this week, the developers say they will bow out, giving the city a chance to answer residents' calls to save the space as parkland.

"At Taylor Morrison, community comes first. … We are so appreciative of the feedback we've received from residents and parishioners in Dunedin," reads a statement released by the developers Friday. "As a result, Taylor Morrison is working with the (church) to make the sale of the property available to the city."

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said the church called for the meeting with city officials after a heated June 2 commission meeting, where residents reprimanded city leaders for not buying the land before developers did. They spoke about the harm development could bring to threatened gopher tortoises living there.

Commissioners responded by requesting staffers to prepare a backup offer on the property, an essentially meaningless move without developers ending their contract with the church.

Church leaders declined to comment for this story, but Bujalski said they told her at the meeting that the city has 60 days to come up with an offer on the property while Taylor Morrison temporarily halts its due diligence period. If the city doesn't meet the deadline, the developers say they plan to move forward.

"If the city is unable to reach an agreement on the purchase of the property, Taylor Morrison will proceed under the terms of our current agreement with the (church)," the statement read.

Bujalski said the city staff is working quickly to run an appraisal of the property and determine possible funding sources through grants and other means. She said she expects a presentation, including a recommendation on whether to proceed with the purchase, to come before the commission soon.

"I feel very hopeful that we will be able to figure this out with the church because they are willing to work with us," she said. "We feel they care about our community just as much as we do."

But resident Sue Humphreys, president of Friends of the Hammock, a nonprofit fighting against the development, said that while she is thrilled the city is taking steps toward saving the land, there is still a lot to do, and the fight is far from over.

"This is in no way a done deal or a sure thing, and we are not going to rest until this developer totally vacates their interest in this piece of property," she said. "Whatever it takes, we are going to fight this until the end."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.

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