For much of this year, state officials could not give away millions of dollars available for land preservation grants because the board responsible for distributing the money didn’t have enough members to meet and vote.
Now that Gov. Ron DeSantis filled the vacancies, the five-member Florida Communities Trust Governing Board is scheduled to meet on July 27 to discuss the 16 applicants from the 2021 budget cycle, including two Pinellas County projects.
Pinellas applied for $2.4 million to go towards the 44-acre Gladys E. Douglas Preserve, which the city of Dunedin purchased for $10 million in May. If the county receives the grant, it will keep $1.5 million as a reimbursement of the $3.5 million it contributed to the Douglas purchase earlier.
The remaining $900,000 would go towards preparing the property for public use, including delineating public trails, creating an access to the adjacent Jerry Lake and building a perimeter fence and parking lot, Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski has said.
WK Preservation Group, a nonprofit formed by neighbors trying to buy 14 acres of virgin woods on West Klosterman Road in Tarpon Springs, applied for $2 million from the state. The funds would go towards the $3 million the group needs to buy the acreage from Pinellas County Schools and combine it with the adjacent Mariner’s Point Management Area, 76 acres of non-public access land that the county has conserved for three decades.
The Pinellas requests, combined with the 14 others from around the state, total $27.3 million. But the trust‘s governing board has only $10 million to disburse for the 2021 cycle after years of reduced funding from the Legislature.
The future of the program is less clear. The 2022 state budget Gov. Ron DeSantis signed on June 2 includes $102 million for Florida Forever, the state’s umbrella program for land conservation and acquisition, but it provided no money for the Florida Communities Trust segment.
While Florida Forever provides money for the state to acquire large tracts of land, Florida Communities Trust is a resource for local governments to acquire land for parks and increase green space for underserved communities.
“Florida Communities Trust helps make sure everyone, no matter what zip code they live in, has urban parks,” said Will Abberger, director of The Trust for Public Land’s national Conservation Finance program. “It’s driven by local government priorities and what a community has identified as its needs. It’s bottom up rather than top down.”
Between 2000 and 2008, the trust received $66 million a year. It had no funding in eight of the 12 years prior to 2021, according to data provided by the Department of Environmental Protection. The trust received $10 million for 2021 awards and no funding for 2022.
Spokespersons for DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, did not answer a question asking why the trust was not funded this fiscal year.
The Legislature has also drastically reduced funding for the Florida Forever program with this year’s $102 million allocation, which is down from the $300 million annual allotment authorized during its creation in 2001.
The hyper-local nature of the projects that apply for Florida Communities Trust funding shows the importance of the state program for communities, said Florida Conservation Voters executive director Aliki Moncrief.
The decline in that funding occurred as the Republican-led Legislature sought in recent years to take power away from cities and counties, Moncrief said. She said the program was unique in that it also prioritizes portions for low-income areas.
“When you think about environmental justice and how Black communities, Latino communities ... get fitted with dirty power plants and landfills, to not fund (the trust) is essentially a failure to make sure those communities also get great natural areas,” Moncrief said.
The Florida Communities Trust board includes: Callie DeHaven, director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of State Lands; Gregory Jones, the Tampa Division Manager for ICI Homes; and new members Deborah Denys, a former member of the Volusia County Council; Joseph Durso, vice president of public affairs for Embrace Families; and Frank Mingo, a Miami Lakes real estate broker.