In March 2020, when Pinellas County Schools tabled a developer’s $3.3 million offer for 14 acres on West Klosterman Road to give a group of residents time to buy the land for preservation, no one expected the endeavor to be easy.
But the seven neighbors, led by Tarpon Springs retirees Kay and Tex Carter, also never anticipated a year-long pandemic, a bruised economy and some of the bureaucratic red tape that has slowed their pace.
“You’re really limited in what you can do in a pandemic,” Kay Carter said. “It’s almost like you’ve had a year of treading water really fast and not getting very far.”
In a year since forming the nonprofit WK Preservation Group, the neighbors have raised $80,000 in small donations and pledges towards their goal of making a $3 million offer to Pinellas County Schools. But the group has had more luck so far in 2021, including weekly sign waving events at the property, rallying from local environmental groups and a partnership with Pinellas Community Foundation that is now a repository for donations.
None of that has stopped the clock from ticking. On April 20, associate superintendent Clint Herbic is expected to give the Pinellas County School Board a recommendation on whether to give WK Preservation more time to raise money or to open the land back to the developers. WK Preservation has asked the school board for more time, but it’s not clear how much patience remains.
“It can’t go on forever,” Pinellas School Board Chair Carol Cook said on Tuesday. “How long do we continue to wait so they can raise the money? I think that is what the conversation needs to be about.”
WK Preservation Group’s mission is to buy the land and combine it with the adjacent Mariner’s Point Management Area, 76 acres of non-public access land Pinellas County has conserved for three decades. Last year, the county agreed in writing to assume ownership of the 14 acres if WK Preservation is successful in its purchase.
The acreage represents some of the last 1 percent of original scrub left in Pinellas, “an imperiled ecoregion of global importance,” ecologist Donald Richardson wrote in a field survey prepared for the nonprofit.
But just as they were ramping up their campaign last year, the West Klosterman cause was overshadowed by the high-profile effort backed by Pinellas County and dozens of volunteers that raised $4.5 million to save 44 acres near Dunedin owned by the late Gladys Douglas.
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WK Preservation applied for a $2 million Florida Communities Trust grant, a state land acquisition program. But because Gov. Ron DeSantis has not filled two vacancies this year, the Trust’s board does not have enough members to meet and vote on the 16 applications competing for a pot of $10 million.
But the group’s momentum has recently picked up.
With the Gladys Douglas property now under contract with the city of Dunedin, which plans to preserve the 44 acres as a park, local environmentalists have turned their attention toward the West Klosterman property.
The Pinellas Community Foundation, a public charity that helped raise funds through its network of philanthropists for the Gladys Douglas purchase, partnered last month with WK Preservation.
“We can now see a clear horizon for raising a significant amount of money,” said WK Preservation president Tex Carter.
The charity’s involvement gives the campaign a sense of legitimacy and provides donors with reassurance their money will be spent appropriately, said Foundation CEO Duggan Cooley.
All donations will go toward the purchase and any additional funds will be used for maintenance and future preservation projects in Pinellas. If money is raised but the purchase is unsuccessful, an advisory committee made up of volunteers from the Sierra Club, Florida Native Plant Society and other environmentalists, will oversee the donations be used for future local preservation projects, Cooley said.
Having a deadline to raise $4.5 million for the Gladys Douglas property by February helped galvanize the community around the cause. And given that school officials are going to be scrutinizing the WK Preservation’s progress at the end of April, Cooley said he sees the same importance with the West Klosterman acreage.
“People need to see a deadline to create urgency, to take action otherwise they think oh, we’ve got all the time in the world,” Cooley said. “And there is a huge group of people in the community who care deeply about preserving some of our greenspace.”
While the school board recognizes the importance of environmental preservation, officials also have to be prudent with its resources, said Cook, the school board chair.
Pinellas County Schools bought the 14 acres in 1990 at a time of proactive infrastructure planning, but officials ended up never needing the site to build a school.
These days, amid education funding debates with the Legislature, Cook said school systems are under more pressure than ever to find resources where they can.
That includes selling off surplus real estate as quickly as possible to the highest bidder.
“When we go to Tallahassee and ask the Legislature for more funding for education, they throw in our face ‘look how much property you have, sell your land,’” Cook said. “It’s becoming a statewide issue.”