Activists and local officials on Tuesday cleared their first major hurdle to preserving 44 wooded acres in unincorporated Pinellas County.
Pulte Homes, the developer under contract to buy the property, backed out at the end of its due diligence period, according to Nathan Hightower, an attorney representing the estate of the late Gladys Douglas selling the land.
Now the challenge for local government is to secure funding by January, the deadline Hightower is giving the city of Dunedin and Pinellas County to make an offer before opening the door to developers again.
On Tuesday, the Dunedin City Commission dedicated $2 million toward purchasing the property, highlighting the need for Pinellas County funding and a state grant to fill the gap. Pulte was under contract to buy the land for $14.5 million, but City Manager Jennifer Bramley said she expects an offer to fall around $8 million based on a new appraisal the city will obtain for environmental use.
Dunedin’s vision is greater than the 44 acres at the northeast corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue. The northeast portion of the property is bordered by a 55-acre freshwater lake, which Douglas sold to the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1986.
Dunedin commissioners directed staff to meet with the Water Management District to discuss the city taking over maintenance of the lake which, combined with the Douglas property, would create a 100-acre nature preserve in the state’s most densely populated county.
“We have an opportunity of a lifetime here to turn 44 acres into 100 acres, and generations to come in Florida will enjoy this long after we are gone,” Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said.
Douglas for years had discussed her desire to sell her land to local government for preservation with proceeds going to local charities. After she died at 95 in July 2019, her family restarted discussions with local government. But with an appraisal topping $11 million, neither the county nor the city made an offer.
Hightower said he entered into negotiations with Pulte earlier this year because local government had failed to act and he had an obligation to find a willing buyer and disburse the proceeds to Douglas’s beneficiaries. He said he will be obligated to go that route again if local government does not come through in 90 days.
Asked if the estate had a minimum price it would accept, Hightower said there are a number of provisions and contingencies that could strengthen a deal. But he said other developers are already interested, and a bar has been set with Pulte’s former contract price.
“We know what the market saw in the value of the property,” Hightower said. “I don’t know why the beneficiaries should accept a lesser amount because the city and county would buy it. They are a buyer just like anybody else, in my mind.”
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After the Tampa Bay Times reported in August that the property was under contract to Pulte, residents and government officials have been rallying to save the land.
The property has heightened environmental significance as home to state-threatened gopher tortoises and the last sand pine rosemary scrub in Pinellas.
Dunedin resident Nichole Mattheus organized a Facebook group with now more than 1,300 members. They have flooded city and county officials with emails and phone calls. Resident Michelle Burnbaum launced weekly sign-waving events at the property, drawing dozens of activists.
An online petition created by Suncoast Sierra Club urging government officials to save the property has more than 9,600 signatures.
Bramley, the Dunedin city manager, said renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer in residence who lives in Dunedin, has expressed interest in the preservation effort.
Bramley called the acquisition of 100 acres for conservation an “inter-generational opportunity for us.”
But the success of the effort will depend on county involvement. Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton said Monday he plans to have further discussions with Dunedin officials, but the path forward is not yet clear.
The county has set aside $15 million to acquire land for preservation over the next 10 years. The Douglas property ranked No. 1 on a list of 60 potential purchases, but the county has to consider other projects competing for money, Burton said.
“I am working with Dunedin and we will be hopeful that we can work with the estate in terms of finding a way in which to preserve this property,” Burton said.
Dunedin’s $2 million contribution is coming from Penny for Pinellas one-cent sales tax money that had been dedicated to building a parking garage next to the new City Hall. The garage will now be a surface lot.
Bramley said the city will pursue a Florida Communities Trust grant that could provide up to 50 percent of the purchase price, leaving roughly $2 million for county or other sources to pay.
James Scott, chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club, said he feared a bigger political fight is ahead as budget constraints may dampen the county’s efforts to find funding for the deal.
Scott said local activists and city officials must now amplify their efforts with county commissioners.
“To get the votes to politically make it happen, to find the money to have that debate is going to take a lot of work,” he said. “This could be a real success story for conservation in Pinellas County. This is a real opportunity to have a win but it’s going to take a lot of work.”