More than a decade before she died, philanthropist Gladys Douglas began the work to fulfill her life’s dream.
She wanted the roughly 44 acres of woods surrounding her home near Virginia and Keene roads, and the 50-acre adjoining lake, to be preserved forever as a nature park amid the concrete sprawl of Pinellas County.
She met with county and City of Dunedin officials to discuss a sale so the proceeds could be donated to local nonprofits. She planned with her estate attorney and kept extensive notes on the project with her personal assistant.
After she died in July 2019 at 95, her family reignited the discussions with local government they had been spearheading while Douglas was too ill to continue them herself.
The Douglas acreage ranked No. 1 on a list of 60 properties Pinellas County hoped to acquire for preservation, but Director of Parks and Conservation Resources Paul Cozzie said appraisal prices topping $11 million prevented the county from buying it. Now, a year after her death, Douglas’ 44 acres are under contract to be sold to a housing developer, fulfilling her worst fear.
“Even in a bad economy right now, this would have been a park to last hundreds of years for the public,” said Douglas’ stepson, Bob Hackworth Jr., a former Dunedin mayor. “So the cost is not that much. In fact, it’s priceless.”
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Amid the wooded property is about 16 acres of a rare acidic, sandy soil known as sand pine rosemary scrub, 99 percent of which in Pinellas County has been lost to development, according to a habitat assessment of the property.
About 3 acres of an even rarer ecosystem, elevated rosemary bald, sit in the center of the scrub, the last of its kind in the county, according to research conducted by the University of Florida in 2013.
To walk around the woods, as Douglas did throughout her life, is a chance to see the state-threatened gopher tortoises, otters, a golden eagle, bobcats and a variety of other plant and animal species.
Douglas’s widower, Bob Hackworth Sr., still lives in the home with a tennis court on the eastern edge of the property while tenants live in a nearby trailer.
Douglas conveyed the adjoining 50-acre lake to the Southwest Florida Water Management District for stormwater management in 1986, but the younger Hackworth said arrangements were discussed to provide access to the lake within the proposed park.
Following the $11.7 million appraisal in 2018 of the 44 acres, the county in April conducted a second appraisal of just the 33-acre portion that did not include the home, trailer and tennis courts.
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That appraisal came in at $5.2 million, still above what the county and city were able to pay, given the county has set aside $15 million to acquire property for preservation over the next 10 years, Cozzie said.
“We all spent a lot of time trying to find a way to make this work, but in the end, unfortunately, we weren’t able to get there,” said Dunedin Parks and Recreation Director Vince Gizzi, who worked with Cozzie on the analysis.
Hackworth, who along with his father does not control the Douglas estate, sees the sale to the developer as a loss to the public caused by indifference from government officials.
“The lack of resources answer is not legitimate,” Hackworth said. “There is state funding, federal funding. You can’t preserve land unless you buy it, and that’s for generations, not this fiscal year or next fiscal year, it’s forever.”
Attorney Nathan Hightower, a co-trustee of the estate, said he tried to carry out Douglas’s wishes with repeated attempts to get county and city officials to begin negotiations.
A letter he sent to then-assistant Pinellas County Administrator Jacob Stowers in October went unanswered. Hightower said the county eventually conducted the appraisal in April following his repeated inquiries but left the estate with no direction.
“I think what I tried to do is to honor her wishes by giving the appropriate people more than reasonable time to be able to do what they needed to do in order to secure that property,” Hightower said.
While Douglas’s desire was well known, a preservation requirement was not written into her will or trust, Hightower said.
The written directive was to distribute the proceeds of the sale of the land to her daughter, Ann Whitley, now in her 70s, and four of her most valued nonprofits.
After more than a year of waiting on local government, Hightower said he had an obligation to sell the property to a willing buyer and disburse the proceeds.
“Her express wishes were for certain charitable organizations and people in her family to receive some of what she had when she died, and you couldn’t do that by giving this property away or selling at such a low price,” Hightower said.
Hightower declined to disclose the sale price or the name of the buyer, but Hackworth said the property is under contract for $14.5 million with Pulte Homes, the third largest homebuilder in the U.S.
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All across Pinellas County, development is closing in on the last remaining greenspaces. A developer has applied for a (still pending) land use change to construct 273 homes on the 96-acre Tides Golf Club in Seminole. On November’s ballot, Clearwater voters will be asked whether the city should lease most of The Landings Golf Club’s 77 acres for a developer to build a light manufacturing complex.
Last year, a developer successfully requested Tarpon Springs annex 44 acres of woods into the city, which will allow him to build twice as many homes than if the property had remained in the unincorporated county. A group of residents is trying to raise $3 million to preserve 14 acres of woods in Tarpon Springs that Pinellas County Schools had planned to sell to a developer.
The sprawl of the state’s most densely populated county weighed on Douglas, and she saw her property as future vestige for nature, said Terry Fortner, a friend who worked as Douglas’s assistant for 40 years.
After moving to Florida in the 1950s following work in Washington, D.C., for the Air Force and Navy, Douglas became a renowned philanthropist and volunteer. She supported the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, Morton Plant Mease Healthcare Foundation, the First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin and more.
Her oasis was her property, where she kept her garden and enjoyed listening to the birds while drinking coffee with her husband on the porch. Today she is buried in the adjacent Dunedin Cemetery in a plot that borders the property line of her woods.
“She would not at all be happy with this,” Fortner said. “When she had her strokes, she would look at me and say ‘Terry, Terry,’ and I knew it not only had to do with the frustration of her situation of not being able to communicate, but she was agitated to finish the work she started. That never happened.”