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Pinellas County pledges $1.5M to save 14 wooded acres. More is needed.

The West Klosterman Preservation Group must raise about $800,000 more to meet the $3 million asking price by the landowner, Pinellas County Schools.
 
Members of the media join members of the West Klosterman Preservation Group for a tour of 14 acres owned by Pinellas County Schools on Thursday Nov 18, 2021, in Tarpon Springs.
Members of the media join members of the West Klosterman Preservation Group for a tour of 14 acres owned by Pinellas County Schools on Thursday Nov 18, 2021, in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 16, 2023

So far, three years of online fundraising, brewery events, sign waving and donor networking hasn’t been quite enough for residents to raise $3 million to save 14 acres on West Klosterman Road from housing developers.

Some deep-pocketed philanthropists have held off because of the lack of state or local government support, according to Kay Carter, treasurer of the West Klosterman Preservation Group.

Now in a show of government backing to boost residents’ fundraising muscle, the Pinellas County Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to pledge $1.5 million toward the $3 million asking price sought by the property owner, Pinellas County Schools. Because the West Klosterman neighbors have raised about $700,000 through their nonprofit, they still have to secure $800,000 in private donations to save the land.

“It was a long time coming, but it’s here now and we have to get it closed off and get it done,” Carter said.

The gate to an approximately 14-acre plot of land is seen Aug. 12, 2020, near Tarpon Springs.
The gate to an approximately 14-acre plot of land is seen Aug. 12, 2020, near Tarpon Springs. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Last year, the state Legislature approved $3 million for the West Klosterman purchase. But Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it along with $3 billion worth of other budget items. Then the residents secured $2.5 million from a legislative budget commission, which gave money to hundreds of projects sponsored by lawmakers following the vetoes.

Although DeSantis signed the projects into the state budget, including the West Klosterman grant, he ultimately torpedoed them by failing to distribute the funds to state agencies by the Sept. 30 deadline.

The 14 acres in an unincorporated part of the county near the border of Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor abut the 76-acre Mariner’s Point Management Area, nonpublic-access land Pinellas County has conserved for three decades.

Pinellas County Schools has owned the 14 acres since the 1990s. Never needing it for school construction, the district put the land up for sale in 2020. The school district received offers from developers topping $3.3 million.

When neighbors found out about the potential sale, they formed their nonprofit to save what makes up some of the last 1% of original scrub left in the county, which is home to 60 threatened or endangered plant and animal species.

Pinellas County Schools agreed to sit on the developers’ offers to give residents time to come up with $3 million.

The county previously agreed to take ownership of the 14 acres if the nonprofit raised the money, and the commission’s action Tuesday authorized the county to initiate a purchase agreement with Pinellas County Schools. The county will also begin negotiating a funding agreement with the West Klosterman nonprofit to give them a timeframe to raise the remaining funding.

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In supporting the West Klosterman effort, commissioners noted the importance of private/public partnerships, evidenced by a recent resident-led mission to save 44 acres of woods in Dunedin. After philanthropist Gladys Douglas died and her estate prepared to sell her land to developers, residents lobbied the community and local government. With $2 million from Dunedin and $3.5 million from Pinellas County, residents were able to raise an additional $4.5 million in private donations to buy the land in 2021 and turn it into the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve.

West Klosterman Preservation Group President Tex Carter said he hopes the county’s backing helps them meet their goal in a similar way.

“We’re now going to be contacting the major donors who’ve said ‘I’d like to give you a major donation but not until the county has committed themselves,’” Tex Carter said.

The $1.5 million for the West Klosterman land is coming from Penny for Pinellas one-cent sales tax dollars, which are dedicated to land preservation between 2020 and 2030. The county used this fund to give the $3.5 million to the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve but was reimbursed $1.5 million this year from the state, according to Paul Cozzie, the county’s director of parks and conservation resources.

The county is also expecting up to $1.2 million from a Florida Communities Trust Grant it received with Dunedin as reimbursement for the Douglas purchase. That would leave about $13 million in the county’s land preservation fund for purchases through 2030 after the West Klosterman expenditure.

Despite their elation, Tex Carter said the nonprofit is still feeling an urgency. Pinellas County will give a deadline to raise the remaining $800,000 in the forthcoming funding agreement, and they have to meet fundraising expectations of donors who pledged matching grants.

In 2021, the Indiana-based Efroymson Family Fund pledged $250,000 as a closing grant, meaning it would kick in only if the nonprofit raises the first $2.75 million.

“This milestone today is a big step forward,” Tex Carter said. “I think that will help us with momentum.”