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Tortoises or townhomes? City, residents tangle over fate of church-owned land near Hammock Park

An oak tree on a nature trail in Hammock Park depicts a scene from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Published Jun. 6, 2016

DUNEDIN — An 8-acre piece of land has turned into a battleground among the Catholic Church, the city and people who love Hammock Park and the gopher tortoises that live there.

The church owns the land, which is adjacent to the park, and has an agreement to sell it to a developer for a housing project.

A group of residents is trying to block the church's deal with Taylor Morrison Homes, arguing that the tree-filled lot, part of the 35-acre campus of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, has been used for years as if it was part of the park. They also raise concerns about threatened gopher tortoises on the property.

"There is magic there," resident Pam Hillestad told the City Commission last week during a meeting that packed City Hall. "There is so little of this left in Florida and we are lucky to have it right here. Let's not let go of it."

The diocese referred calls to the church, whose representative and Realtor Scott Rehm says there are two reasons for the sale: to decrease the church's liability for people using the space as a part of Hammock Park and to cash in on the unused acreage to pay for the church's remodeling projects.

"It is important to note … that the acres are owned by the diocese. It is not part, nor has it ever been part of the (park)," he said at Thursday's meeting.

Hordes of opposers have flocked — some carrying colorful signs decorated with tree branches, wearing tie-dye shirts and one even driving a hippie bus — to city meetings and to a protest in front of a recent Sunday morning Mass.

At Thursday's meeting, residents tried to persuade commissioners to do something — anything — to stop the sale.

"Haven't we allowed enough development in Dunedin? The charm of this quaint town is disappearing more and more each time we see a sign saying new townhomes coming soon," resident Niki Barber said.

Others, including 9-year-old Audrey Akter, focused on the population of gopher tortoises, a species listed as threatened in Florida.

"How would you like it if you got kicked out of your home?" she said, holding a homemade tortoise poster. "It's not right or fair at all."

After hearing from about 30 residents, Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski proposed the city submit a backup offer on the property, and fellow commissioners agreed.

But Rehm said although the city has every right to submit the offer, the window for change is nearly shut.

"We have a contract with Taylor Morrison, and we plan on honoring it," he said. "They still have a lot of things they need to go through, but we are obligated to them under the terms of the agreement."

In a twist, one of the things Taylor Morrison might need to go through is a zoning change, which the commission would have to vote on.

Lael Giebel, project coordinator for the city, said the company has not contacted the city staff since a May 25 Development Review Committee meeting, the first gathering to be swarmed by more than 100 angry residents, but the next step will be for developers to submit a zoning application.

"We know they are considering doing townhomes," Giebel said, which would require a zoning change.

Taylor Morrison spokeswoman Linda Gross declined to comment on the company's plans, but if developers choose townhomes, commissioners could deny the zoning change, forcing the developers to change their proposal or back out completely, giving the city a chance at saving the space as parkland.

It could also be the a shot at redemption for the city, which is getting heat for missing an earlier chance at the property.

Before striking the deal with Taylor Morrison, the church in February offered the land to the city for $1.2 million, but commissioners declined at the recommendation of the city staff, which said the church was unwilling to negotiate a price or payment plan.

But an email Rehm sent in November, when the city was in talks with the church, to parks and recreation coordinator Vince Gizzi, planning and development director Greg Rice and then-Assistant City Manager Doug Hutchens, indicates otherwise.

"I wish to thank you for the time spent with us yesterday regarding Our Lady of Lourdes intent on selling … their property," Rehm said in the email. "After the meeting, Father Gary (Dowsey) reiterated his willingness to entertain the parish holding a 7 to 10 year mortgage, if that were beneficial to the city. Other options also to be considered include an installment sale or lease purchase."

Bujalski apologized for the city's mistake at the Thursday meeting, but said it isn't the commission's fault.

"What we are hearing now is different from what we were told," she said.

She said somehow the information given from the church to staff members, who did not return calls for comment Friday, was lost in translation to the commission.

Bujalski said the backup offer should come back before the commission in the next few weeks, but until then, it's a waiting game while the developers do their due diligence. The church hopes to close the deal sometime next year.

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

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