After a housing developer walked away from its $14.5 million contract to buy 44 acres of woods near Dunedin last month, a grassroots movement has been fundraising to help local government buy the virgin land and preserve it forever.
The initiative prompted an anonymous couple to commit $2 million to the cause, Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski announced Tuesday. The proposed gift adds to the $2 million the city has already dedicated to buy the land at the corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue.
City officials expect to make an offer in January to the estate of the late Gladys Douglas, who died in 2019 and long planned to sell her property for preservation. The city’s offer will be based on appraisals set to be completed next month, which Bujalski expects to fall in the range of $8 million for fair market value for the current zoning and land use.
The gap could be filled by private donations, grants and a still-undecided amount of funding from Pinellas County, Bujalski said.
“When you have an untouched piece of property that represents old Florida like that with the environmental species in there that are waning in existence, I think people get very passionate about it,” Bujalski said of the grassroots efforts.
But activists and local government may have a larger gap to fill than they are anticipating. Attorney Nathan Hightower, co-trustee of the Douglas estate, said Pulte’s former contract price based on development value established the market value for the land. He reiterated on Wednesday he does not believe the estate’s beneficiaries should accept any less.
“Nothing changed,” Hightower said. “Property value is in excess of $14.5 million.”
The citizen group, led by Dunedin resident and ecologist Nichole Mattheus, has primarily used social media to spread the word about the property after the Tampa Bay Times first reported it was under contract in August. When the developer backed out of its contract in October, she was overwhelmed with citizens wanting to donate to local government’s effort to buy the land that has the last rosemary scrub habitat in the county.
The Pinellas Community Foundation, a public charity that receives donations for local causes, has partnered with the group to be a repository for donations, said CEO Duggan Cooley. The effort has so far received $7,100 but Cooley said his staff is reaching out to its network of estate attorneys, financial planners and donors to solicit more support.
The Foundation is also providing a secure method for donors to give. If the estate rejects the local government’s offer, the donations will be used for future preservation projects in Pinellas. And any fundraising that exceeds the purchase cost will be used for maintaining the property, Cooley said.
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“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our community and I think it is a unique opportunity that is very time limited for us to take action,” Cooley said. “If the community cares, we’re ready to help people step up and see this land preserved from development in perpetuity.”
The Suncoast Sierra Club is part of an advisory board that will be responsible for overseeing the donations collected and allocating any excess money to other county preservation projects in partnership with the Community Foundation.
But Sierra Club executive committee chair James Scott foresees a need for more county support in order to be able to make an offer the Douglas estate will accept.
With the updated appraisals not yet complete, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton has not yet confirmed an amount he will be recommending the county contribute. But Pinellas has set aside $15 million to acquire land for preservation over the next 10 years, leaving little room in the budget to splurge on one property.
“Land conservation is a duty and mission of local government,” Scott said. “The whole fundraising effort in my mind should almost be like a backstop, an emergency lever, just in case, instead of the central means of preserving the property. The county should be filling in the hole.”
Scott said the uncertainty of the situation proves the need for a more robust preservation plan in Pinellas County.
“Once it’s said and done, I hope the legacy of this whole endeavor is going to be that the county gets its act together,” James said. “We need a plan, a very crisp, clear, forward thinking plan that is publicly accessible that we all can find online and access and say ‘This is what the county is doing.’”
After the developer backed out in October, Hightower, the estate attorney, gave the city and county until January to make an offer before he opens the property back to developers.
Douglas had discussed her desire to sell the land for preservation for more than a decade, but her intention was not included in writing in her will.
In 2018, the city obtained an appraisal of the 44 acres that topped $11 million. After her death, the county got an appraisal on a 33-acre portion for $5.2 million. They never made an offer.
Hightower said he had an obligation to sell the property to a willing buyer and disburse the proceeds to her beneficiaries, which includes four local charities.
Residents have flooded county officials with calls and emails over the past few months, imploring them not to miss their second chance at preserving one of the last green spaces in Pinellas County.
Bujalski, the Dunedin mayor, said local government cannot miss its second chance at preservation. The Douglas property borders a 55-acre lake that Douglas sold to the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1986. Bujalski said the city is in talks with water management officials to either buy the lake outright or use it through a management agreement.
The deal would create a nearly 100-acre preserve in Florida’s most densely populated county.
“That lake has never even been fished on by the general public, it’s only been fished on by the family that’s been there for generations and some of that area is untouched,” Bujalski said. “I’m just really excited about this property for future generations.”