Dunedin wants to partner with Pinellas County to save pristine land from developer

The city wants to make an offer for nearly 44 acres. But that will be up to Pulte Homes, which has the property under contract.
Nearly 44 acres at the corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue is under contract with a developer. But the City of Dunedin wants to pursue a proposal in case the contract falls through.
Nearly 44 acres at the corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue is under contract with a developer. But the City of Dunedin wants to pursue a proposal in case the contract falls through. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Sept. 1, 2020

Nearly 44 acres of woods went under contract to a housing developer last month, but City of Dunedin officials are not giving up hope that they might still be able to acquire the land for preservation.

On Tuesday, the City Commission directed staff to work with Pinellas County officials on a proposal that could be submitted to the estate of the late philanthropist Gladys Douglas, which controls the property, in the event the developer chooses to walk away when the due diligence period ends on Oct. 18.

“We really need to look at aggressively identifying our greenspace and really actively going after it like we would a piece of development,” City Commissioner Jeff Gow said. “In that list of why people come to this area of the country … nowhere ever did I read it’s for our asphalt, our concrete, our condos.”

Related: RELATED: She wanted her 44 acres of Pinellas land to be a park. Now it’s under contract with a developer.

But in a later interview on Tuesday, county administrator Barry Burton said he could not commit to developing a joint offer with Dunedin until meeting with city staff to determine exactly what they are proposing. Pinellas County has set aside $15 million to acquire land for preservation over the next decade, and the Douglas property’s most recent appraisal of $5.2 million on the Douglas property precluded the county from making an offer earlier this year.

“We have to look at a 10-year window,” Burton said. “Obviously Dunedin wants this piece of property, but we have to look at all countywide needs.”

Philanthropist Gladys Douglas began talking more than a decade ago with local government officials about preserving her land in unincorporated Pinellas County at the corner of Virginia Avenue and Keene Road. She intended to sell the land to the county, not to donate it, so proceeds could be given to her daughter and four local nonprofits.

With the 44 acres inside Dunedin’s planning area, the city conducted an appraisal in late 2018, which came to $11.7 million. City manager Jennifer Bramley said officials discussed the county using Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue and a state conservation grant to buy the property.

Bramley said the county informed the city in January 2019 that the property would have to go through its environmental lands assessment process to be added to its list of potential acquisitions.

In April, nine months after Douglas died, the county conducted an appraisal of 33 of the acres, excluding the portion with a home and tennis courts, which came back at $5.2 million, still above what the county was willing to pay.

The county never submitted an offer, and attorney Nathan Hightower, a co-trustee of the estate, said he had a fiduciary responsibility to sell the property to a willing buyer and disburse the proceeds to Douglas’ beneficiaries.

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Hightower declined to disclose the sale price or the name of the potential buyer, but Bob Hackworth Jr., Douglas’ stepson, said the property is under contract for $14.5 million with Pulte Homes, the third largest homebuilder in the U.S.

On Monday, Macey Kessler, corporate communications manager for Pulte Homes, declined to comment on whether the company would be willing to back out of the contract to allow the county to buy the land for environmental preservation.

Burton told the County Commission on Thursday he didn’t know the property had gone under contract with a developer until reading about it in a Tampa Bay Times story on Aug. 24. Bramley said Dunedin officials were just as surprised and that discussions had lagged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the fate of the property is now in the hands of the developer, Bramley noted some optimism.

She said a 60-day due diligence period for a deal of this scope is “almost unheard of.” She said the developer would have to conduct a tree survey, topographical survey and would also have to apply for annexation into the City of Dunedin for water and sewer services.

There are also environmental factors the developer would have to address, like the habitats of the state-threatened gopher tortoise.

Kessler declined to comment on what Pulte Homes plans to build on the property. But Bramley said the current zoning would allow for 134 dwelling units.

“There are a number of obstacles for the developer,” Bramley said. “There’s going to be a heavy duty lift.”

Since the Times reported the contract last week, residents have flooded city and county officials with pleas to make a last ditch effort to save the natural oasis in the most densely populated county in the state.

“A special piece of land slipping through the cracks is an indicator of a problem in our conservation policy as a county,” James Scott, chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club, said during the Commission’s virtual meeting Tuesday. “We really dropped the ball on this and I think it will be easy for finger pointing … this is an opportunity for us to step up and show some real leadership.”

Hackworth, Douglas’ stepson who does not control the estate, said he wished city and county officials had more aggressively pursued state and federal grants to match any funds local government was able to allocate.

He said he was frustrated with what appeared to be a lack of urgency from county officials to acquire the property, leading the estate representatives to accept an offer from a developer.

Bramley noted the state extended the deadline to apply for a Florida Communities Trust land preservation grant from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1, which gives local government more time to apply if the development contract falls through.

“Maybe there is a flicker of hope,” said Hackworth, who during his tenure as mayor in 2008 helped acquire the 12 acres that is now Weaver Park. “It’s in the hands of the developer. If this doesn’t happen, maybe there will be a reexamination of public policy for preservation so this doesn’t happen again.”