As conservation efforts go, the Gladys Douglas property was a success story; the Anclote River project was not. But both showed this year that Pinellas County needs a robust funding source for acquiring environmental lands. It’s not enough to demand that the government kill or restrict development proposals. If residents want sensitive lands preserved, they should be prepared to pay. And that requires a ready source of money and smart conservation planning.
Pinellas County commissioners and activists celebrated in May when Dunedin officials signed a mock deed to celebrate the city’s purchase of the 44-acre Douglas property for a public park. Though local governments had explored the possibility of buying the property, they hadn’t acted quickly enough or assembled the necessary funds. But the public outcry sparked a collaborative effort between local government and private donors, who met the $10 million purchase price for what will be called the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve.
But activists lost a fight in November when the Tarpon Springs City Commission voted to approve the final site plan for 404 luxury apartments on the east side of U.S. 19 along the banks of the Anclote River. Opponents had successfully stalled a proposed Walmart at the site years ago, but as Commissioner Connor Donovan said in approving the application: “We can’t hold the property owner’s land hostage from them until they bend to our will of, ‘Hey, I want it to be a park.”
Pinellas voters approved several land conservation programs in the 1970s and 80s, acquiring thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive lands. In recent years, Pinellas has committed funds from the “Penny for Pinellas’ sales tax for environmental purchases. But only $15 million is budgeted for acquisitions for the 2020-2029 cycle. The Douglas purchase alone would have consumed two-thirds of what was available.
Hillsborough County voters have also approved several conservation programs, but the budget is far bigger. The current program provides up to $200 million for land purchases. As of 2019, the program had preserved approximately 61,980 acres, and of the $200 million in the latest round of funding, approximately $67 million is still available for acquisition. As importantly, Hillsborough has received more than $87.1 million in joint funding for acquisitions, which shows the potential for leveraging such a big pot of money.
Pinellas’ need for a better funding source was highlighted again last week. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Tracey McManus reported, activists are trying to save 14 acres on the suburban border of Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor from becoming another housing development. In June, the owner of the property, Pinellas County Schools, agreed to sit on offers from developers to give the nonprofit West Klosterman Preservation Group until July 1, 2022, to come up with $3 million to buy the land before opening it back to the private market. With seven months to go, the nonprofit has raised $350,000, about 10 percent of the $3.2 million goal.
More money makes these and other purchases more possible. And ready access to cash would enable Pinellas to maneuver when properties land on the market. Depending on bake sales and big private-donor checks won’t cut it in built-out Pinellas as the climate warms, the sea rises and as these properties slip further out of reach.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.