We came close to losing forever one of the few pieces of native Florida that remain in Pinellas County. Let’s not squander our second chance.
The Gladys Douglas-Hackworth property is 44 undeveloped acres in the heart of Dunedin. It’s a refuge for rare rosemary scrub, sand pine, a lake, a wetland and threatened gopher tortoises, which together paint a living portrait of Florida’s natural history. Over time, our state has lost more than 90 percent of this once-widespread scrub habitat that is found nowhere else on Earth except the southeastern United States. It’s even worse in Pinellas, where development has destroyed all but 1 percent of it.
The Gladys Douglas-Hackworth property is adjacent to the 55-acre Jerry Lake preserve, which is managed by Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud). Together, these two properties could become nearly 100 acres of high-quality, publicly accessible habitat within Florida’s most densely populated county. In fact, the Douglas property ranks No. 1 on the county’s list of 60 potential purchases. Preserving it would be a testament to the values of our community.
It was the wish of the late Gladys Douglas to see her land preserved as a nature park. But unfortunate missteps by the city and county led to her property going under contract with a land developer. Bob Hackworth, Glady’s stepson and a former mayor of Dunedin, demanded answers. “Even in a bad economy right now, this would have been a park to last hundreds of years for the public,” he told the Tampa Bay Times this summer. “So the cost is not that much. In fact, it’s priceless.” His words launched a wave of support to protect Gladys' legacy of environmental stewardship.
This Tampa Bay Times article inspired me to organize a grassroots campaign. After witnessing several gopher tortoise burrows lost to development across the county and even within my own neighborhood, I decided that was enough. If the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission couldn’t stop this catastrophic loss, then I would.
With more than a thousand dedicated citizens, we organized as “Preserve the Douglas-Hackworth Property” — and aided by the Suncoast Sierra Club — I have campaigned to raise awareness and get the issue in front of decision-makers. Work by these engaged citizens has been supported by ecologists lending their expertise, advocates on social media, letter writers, roadside sign wavers and more than 10,000 residents who made their support known through a petition.
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The urgency rose as heavy machinery from the developer gouged swaths through the property. Immediately, I reached out to the property owner to conduct a citizen science gopher tortoise burrows survey. Unfortunately, the burrows were easy to find. I simply followed the bulldozer tracks which led to numerous collapsed and abandoned burrows. The Florida rosemary along these paths is now dying.
However, there are also signs of new life, sprouts that give me hope that this habitat can be restored and preserved. We need the crisp clean air these pines and oaks provide. We must protect the fluffy lichen that scatter the ground like snow. We must conserve this unique mosaic of species for generations to witness and cherish forever.
This tranquil green habitat was nearly lost. It was under contract for $14.5 million for condo development by Pulte Homes, which pulled out on Oct. 19 in response to reduced density restrictions and the public pressure for conservation.
The estate’s representative then gave Dunedin and Pinellas County a second chance of 90 days, until Jan. 18, to make an offer. The current appraised value is $11 million; however, an appraisal with the updated reducing density zoning has been requested.
The large group of citizens working to save this piece of our heritage from bulldozers is hopeful because we believe we have an ally in the Pinellas County Commission. We believe this because the county’s mission statement says as much:
Value No. 3: “We believe it is our responsibility to improve the overall quality of life through the management and preservation of the natural and built environment.”
On Oct. 20, the Dunedin City Commission committed $2 million in support of this essential initiative, but the city cannot do it alone. Now, Pinellas County also has the opportunity to show environmental leadership on this issue.
The Jan. 18 deadline approaches quickly.
Recently in a panel discussion on the Florida Gulf Coast Hope Spot, researcher Dr. Sylvia Earle referenced the Douglas property when speaking of the difficulties and possibilities of preservation.
“No one can do everything,” she said, “but everyone can do one thing.”
The next two county commission meetings, this Tuesday and on Dec. 15, are critical. I will be there, virtually of course. You should be too. Let our representatives know that you, too, support the value of conservation and our natural heritage.
We can make progress here. Pinellas County and the City of Dunedin can serve as a beacon of hope for conservation in Florida. The county commission must back their own values and commit the remaining funding and the estate must accept their offer. If these steps are not taken, we will lose the last remaining rosemary scrub paradise in Pinellas County forever.
Together, we can do something worthwhile, beautiful and essential – save this rare natural treasure for the people of Pinellas County to forever enjoy.
Nichole Mattheus is an ecologist with more than 15 years of experience fostering environmental awareness through previous graduate and professional work at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the University of Alabama. She volunteers for a variety of citizen science projects at the Florida Springs Institute, the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, Eckerd College and local Dunedin parks.