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A property on Pinellas County’s preservation wish list lost to development

With limited funding but a long wish list, county officials plan to discuss preservation strategy and priorities early next year.
A private property sign is seen near vacant land Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in unincorperated Pinellas. Robert Collins of St. Petersburg confirmed he closed Thursday on the 14 undeveloped acres on 164th Ave. N, just west of the southern end of the Bayside Bridge. The property was on Pinellas County's preservation wish list.
A private property sign is seen near vacant land Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in unincorperated Pinellas. Robert Collins of St. Petersburg confirmed he closed Thursday on the 14 undeveloped acres on 164th Ave. N, just west of the southern end of the Bayside Bridge. The property was on Pinellas County's preservation wish list. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2020

A wooded property on Pinellas County’s preservation wish list has been sold into private hands.

Robert Collins of St. Petersburg confirmed he closed Thursday on 14 undeveloped acres on 164th Avenue N, just west of the southern end of the Bayside Bridge in unincorporated Pinellas.

The property, about half of which is considered unbuildable wetlands on Old Tampa Bay, had been bank owned since 2012, when a developer who planned for apartments and homes went bankrupt. In 2018, county officials created a list of 60 properties for potential preservation and included the 14 acres.

The loss of the C1 Bank property follows community uproar this summer, when Pulte Homes went under contract for 44 acres of woods near Dunedin that were also on the county’s wish list. Pinellas and Dunedin officials are now preparing to make an offer to the estate of the late Gladys Douglas for the 44 acres, which is only possible because Pulte walked away from the purchase in October.

Housing on one side of the road, rare wild land on another. The contrast could not be more stark for the Gladys Douglas-Hackworth property, 44 undeveloped acres in the heart of Dunedin. Even as it’s surrounded by housing developments, this hammock of green space serves as a refuge for wildlife. We have a second chance to protect this habitat — the largest left to preserve in Pinellas. To prevent further loss, now is the time to act, argues the author. [Photo by Carlton Ward Jr    |   Florida Wild]
Housing on one side of the road, rare wild land on another. The contrast could not be more stark for the Gladys Douglas-Hackworth property, 44 undeveloped acres in the heart of Dunedin. Even as it’s surrounded by housing developments, this hammock of green space serves as a refuge for wildlife. We have a second chance to protect this habitat — the largest left to preserve in Pinellas. To prevent further loss, now is the time to act, argues the author. [Photo by Carlton Ward Jr | Florida Wild] [ Photo by Carlton Ward Jr | Florida Wild ]

The second chance to buy the Douglas property has prompted the county to take a harder look at preservation strategy. The county doesn’t have a concrete plan for how to pursue its potential acquisition list, and parks and conservation resources director Paul Cozzie said staff is scheduling a discussion with the county commission early next year to talk priorities.

The loss of the bank property highlights the limited time county officials have to preserve more land in the state’s most densely populated county, with only $15 million budgeted to buy land through 2030.

“The strategy may be to look at whether $15 million is the right amount or is $30 million the right amount or if it needs to be spread over five years instead of 10 because there will be more missed opportunities as time goes on,” said 2021 county commission chair Dave Eggers.

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Pinellas County has used $54.6 million in Penny for Pinellas one-cent sales tax revenue since 2000 to buy 16 properties for preservation, according to data provided by Cozzie. Along with three donations and two properties acquired through escheat, the county has saved 1,497 acres over the past two decades.

These acquisitions added to what is now 21,000 acres of county parks and environmental lands. Environmental stewardship and the goal to “promote a balanced relationship between the natural environment and development” are outlined in the county’s comprehensive plan.

Still, Sierra Club executive committee chair James Scott told the Tampa Bay Times last month his group is advocating for the county commission to act more urgently on acquiring preservation land. With no concrete strategy outlined for the county’s 2018 list of potential acquisitions, they are ripe to slip through to developers and other private interests.

“Good conservation policy comes from good conservation planning,” Scott said.

Cozzie said part of the lack of movement on the potential acquisitions has been the timing. The $15 million pot for the next decade is coming from the fourth cycle of Penny for Pinellas that began in January 2020, so funding wasn’t immediately available when the list was made in 2018.

Almost all of the funding for land preservation in the Penny’s third cycle from 2010 to 2020 was advance funded in 2008 for a single $17 million purchase: an 872-acre tract that was added to the now 8,746-acre Brooker Creek Preserve.

Officials have bought one parcel from the 2018 list so far: the 38-acre former Baypointe Golf Course that will be used for stormwater maintenance and greenspace. The $1.2 million purchase in February was paid for with Penny funds dedicated to stormwater, not the $15 million pot for preservation, Cozzie said.

The 60 properties the county hoped to acquire have a combined just market value of $33.7 million, meaning the actual costs could be more than double that. With only a $15 million budget, Cozzie said the discussion with the commission next year will focus on next steps.

“$15 million isn’t enough to tackle what we need to tackle,” Cozzie said. “As the community has grown and things like affordable housing and economic development have become more critical, funds have shifted.”

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Before investor Robert Collins bought the property overlooking Old Tampa Bay last week, resident David Waddell had been pressuring the county for years to buy the land as mitigation for his flood-prone neighborhood.

He said a lack of urgency has resulted in the loss of this critical land, which is “a ball drop, just like the next one is going to be.”

“This has always been about not developing it, because this acts as a sponge for our neighborhood,” said Waddell, president of the Pinellas Groves Hamlet Citizens Committee. “If you take that land away, we lose our watershed capability.”

Collins, who bought the 14 acres for $650,000, said he is planning to build a few homes for himself and adult children, not a dense housing development. But Collins, CEO of grant foundation TrustBridge, said he knows first hand the demand that is out there for land in Pinellas.

“If the county can put away beautiful pieces of property for ultimately the common good for the public, I think that’s a good thing. But they can’t just sit around and do nothing and have wishful thinking or else these opportunities are going to go away,” Collins said.