Inside Dunedin’s Douglas Hackworth property, it’s magic
A trip through the contentious Pinellas County land reveals so much to save.
Bob Hackworth gives a tour of Jerry Lake, which could become part of a 100-acre nature preserve in Pinellas County.
Bob Hackworth gives a tour of Jerry Lake, which could become part of a 100-acre nature preserve in Pinellas County. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published Nov. 20, 2020|Updated Nov. 20, 2020

DUNEDIN — Deep inside the Dunedin Cemetery, Bob Hackworth perches on a golf cart. The graveyard is the easiest meeting point to wedge into the mysterious acres of brush and trees.

I’ve driven past this a hundred times, down Keene Road and Virginia Avenue on the way to Publix and the bank, on school runs and family visits. I’ve buzzed by Pinellas County’s most prized undeveloped property without much concern for what’s back there.

This summer, the Douglas Hackworth property was on the brink of bulldoze. Today, its future remains uncertain. It’s easy to get lost in numbers and deals, lawyers and trustees.

But on this beautiful November day, Bob has invited me to see what’s really on the line.

I don’t know Bob. But I know Bob in that townie way. I recognize him from the gym, where he won the weight loss challenge. He lives in my neighborhood. His high school English teacher owned my house. That’s how things go around here.

When he was a city commissioner and mayor of Dunedin in the 2000s, preservation was his goal. It was historically the local way, governments protecting land — Hammock and Weaver parks, Caladesi and Honeymoon islands.

“To me, it was, get your hands on anything you can to preserve it,” he says, branches crunching beneath the wheels.

He thought that would apply to his stepmother’s land. Philanthropist Gladys Douglas had been working to ensure it was preserved but didn’t put that stipulation in her will. She wanted proceeds to go to family and causes around the arts, faith and medicine. Toward the end, she was too ill to negotiate.

After she died in 2019, the land’s value was too high for the county or city to make an offer. In August, Pulte Homes entered a $14.5 million contract and started the heavy machinery.

Tracey McManus of the Times first reported this, igniting a grassroots effort. Citizens rallied. Anti-development posters popped up next to presidential campaign signs. Pulte backed out.

“Local news turned this from a tragedy, a lost opportunity,” Bob said. “We’re back to having a chance.”

The estate’s attorney is giving local governments until Jan. 18 to make an offer, based on a new appraisal coming soon. Dunedin has pledged $2 million. An anonymous donor this week gave another $2 million, and smaller amounts are coming in. The county, working with a limited budget for the next decade, will have to foot some of the bill.

Pulte Homes did Bob at least one favor, clearing a route for his golf cart. When he took people back here before, it was with a machete.

He drives past yellow wildflowers, leafy pines and oaks, up to a patch of the last habitat of elevated rosemary bald in the county. A minty layer of lichen coats the ground. A hundred gopher tortoises burrow unseen.

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The Gladys Douglas Hackworth property contains 44 acres of woods.
The Gladys Douglas Hackworth property contains 44 acres of woods. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Down the road, there’s a main house where 90-year-old Bob Hackworth Sr. still lives. “Dad’s in there somewhere,” Bob says. It’s a solid home, not ostentatious despite an enviable tennis court. Around the corner, there’s a mobile home for the land’s caretaker and his wife.

Two big dogs, Tucker and Ridge, trot up to the golf cart. Tucker hops on for a ride. A girthy rescue pig named Bacon wiggles away. He doesn’t much care for people.

Remnants of the years blend with nature — teetering sheds, a rusted classic car with sprouting vegetation. There’s a set of beehives a local keeper asked to store. Bob pictures the bees being a neat attraction in a park.

“We get a jar of honey out of that deal,” Bob says.

We get to Jerry Lake, a 55-acre freshwater jewel that feeds into Curlew Creek. Douglas sold it to the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1986. In the current proposal, the city would take over the lake and combine it with the land, creating a 100-acre preserve.

The thought is breathtaking. Picnics by the lake. Kayaking. Nature trails. It’s so quiet back here, despite the busy roads framing the perimeter.

Caretaker Ron Aurandt fires up a boat, and we climb in.

Bob says I’m only the 30th person to be on the lake since the family owned the property. That makes me sad. Condos are nice. New homes are nice. Having access to a private lake if you have money is nice. But aren’t we already surrounded by plenty of stucco and brick and tile?

When is it enough?

As the grasses sway around us, Captain Ron slows the boat. He points to a Great Blue Heron, high up in a tree with a velvet neck extending into the sun. I fumble to take a picture, but in an instant, it slips away.

Related: HOW TO HELP: You can donate to the Pinellas Community Foundation’s fundraising page for the Gladys Douglas property here
Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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