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Developer eyeing Douglas land cited by state for bulldozer on threatened tortoise habitat

Pulte Homes was issued a warning Oct. 2 and ordered to stop work for 28 days. It is under contract to buy the 44 acres with due diligence ending Oct. 18.

Pulte Homes, the developer under contract to buy 44 acres of land in unincorporated Pinellas County, violated state rules when its contractor drove a bulldozer near threatened gopher tortoise burrows, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The commission issued Pulte Homes and its contractor, Mortenson Engineering, warnings for the violation on Friday and ordered work on the land to stop for 28 days. If Pulte Homes purchases the property, the company will have to obtain a disturbed site permit to remove and relocate any tortoises, according to the incident report.

Macey Kessler, corporate communications manager for Pulte Homes, did not respond to a request for comment.

The 44 acres of mostly woods at the corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue was owned by the late philanthropist Gladys Douglas, who long planned to sell her property to Pinellas County or the City of Dunedin for it to be preserved as a nature park.

After she died in July 2019 at 95, her family reignited the discussions with local government they had been spearheading while Douglas was too ill to continue them herself. But local government officials never made an offer.

While Douglas’s desire was well known, a preservation requirement was not written into her will.

Attorney Nathan Hightower, a co-trustee of the estate, told the Tampa Bay Times in August he had an obligation to sell the land to a willing buyer so the proceeds could be distributed to her beneficiaries. According to her will, Douglas’s beneficiaries include eight individuals and four nonprofits: Morton Plant Mease Health Care Foundation, PAC Foundation, Dunedin Fine Arts Center and First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin.

County administrator Barry Burton said he learned the property was under contract with Pulte from the Times story. Since then, city and county officials have been inundated with pleas from residents to save the property from development. Residents are now holding regular rallies at the site to wave signs calling for officials to save the land.

The developer’s due diligence period ends Oct. 18, according to Dunedin city manager Jennifer Bramley. Burton and Bramley met with Pulte representatives on Sept. 21, but they could not confirm whether the developer is willing to back away from a potential purchase so local government could buy the land for preservation.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Jody Criswell responded to the property on Aug. 25 and found three active and five possible inactive gopher tortoise burrows. The blade of an unoccupied bulldozer came within five feet of one of the burrows, according to Criswell’s report.

Pulte’s contractor rented the bulldozer to clear a path into the property to allow access for a truck to conduct soil testing, according to Criswell.

Scott Himelhock, vice president of land acquisition for Pulte’s west Florida division, told Criswell on Aug. 28 that he hired a firm to conduct a listed species investigation on the property but that the survey was not completed, according to Criswell’s report.

Criswell said there was orange tape surrounding some of the burrows, but Himelhock said he was unaware there were gopher tortoises on the property. Naylor Environmental owner Abbey Naylor, who conducted the listed species investigation for Pulte, told Criswell she had an agent on site on Aug. 17 and Aug. 19 who marked some of the burrows with orange tape. She said she submitted her report to Pulte Homes on Aug. 28, the day Criswell contacted the developer regarding the violation.

Gopher tortoises are dry land turtles that are a threatened species protected by law. Florida requires the removal of the animals before any development takes place, and property owners must acquire permits before capturing and relocating the tortoises, according to the Commission.

They dig deep burrows for shelter, where hundreds of other species also live. The tortoises' longleaf pine forest habitat has been decimated, with less than 5 percent of the original 90 million acres it once roamed across the South remaining today, according to The Nature Conservancy.

The Douglas property is also an environmental rarity as some of the last sand pine rosemary scrub left in Pinellas County.