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Pinellas Misses Chance To Preserve 44-Acre ‘Oasis’ Near Dunedin

Dirt road cutting through towering trees and green shrubbery.
Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times
This property, owned by the late Gladys Douglas, is in unincorporated Pinellas County near Dunedin. Douglas saw it as an oasis in the middle of a concrete sprawl. Her dream was to have this property preserved for the public to enjoy.

A 95-year-old woman had hoped the land could be preserved for a park, but her estate and Pinellas County couldn't agree on a price. Now, it is being sold to developers.

Philanthropist Gladys Douglas had hoped to preserve 44 acres of land she owned near Dunedin by selling it to Pinellas County.

She wanted the land to become a park.

The property, near Virginia and Keene roads, is home to Florida rarities like rosemary scrub, a sandy ecosystem that has been nearly lost to development in Pinellas. State-threatened gopher tortoises, otters, and bobcats are found there as well.

She wanted to donate the proceeds from the sale to local nonprofits.

But after she died last summer at the age of 95, the county and her estate could not close the deal. Pinellas officials said the price tag of about $5 million was too costly.

The property is now under contract to be sold to one of the nation's largest housing developers.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros interviewed Tracey McManus, a journalist for the Tampa Bay Times, about her reporting on this story and the county's struggles to preserve land.

What did you find in your reporting that is so special about Gladys' property both for conservationists and also for developers? Because I think this is like a prized land for for both sides. Can you just describe what you found?

Yeah, I mean, it's really special because it's such a vast piece of green space that still exists here in Pinellas County, which is the most densely populated county in the state. So a 44-acre parcel of mostly wooded land just is super rare in the county. So for the public, it's really a valued piece of nature amid concrete sprawl in Pinellas. And to developers, it's obviously a really valuable piece of property that has a ton of development potential.

What trends have you seen in development across Pinellas County? You mentioned a bit of that in your article.

Yeah, right now in Pinellas County, because there's so little available land, developers are looking at golf courses, wooded properties like this. There's a golf course in Seminole called The Tides that closed in 2018 after a developer purchased it, and they currently have an application for a land use change in with the county to build 273 homes on that. That application is still pending because the local planning agency hasn't been able to meet to vote on it.

In Clearwater in November, voters are going to be deciding whether or not the city should lease most of the 77-acre Landings golf course to a developer to build a light industrial complex there. So we're seeing developers coming in on these last remaining available properties.

So how is Pinellas County thinking about conservation right now that you can tell, and what is it planning on doing about it?

Well, around 2018, the county developed a list of about 60 properties that ideally they would like to acquire for preservation purposes. They dedicated $15 million to spend over 10 years in acquiring these properties. But since that time, they haven't moved forward with purchasing properties on the list.

In January, Pinellas County did buy the abandoned Bay Point golf course in order to preserve it for stormwater management, but also as greenspace. But they actually used stormwater funds to buy that. The money did not come from this special $15 million pot that's set aside for preservation. So other than the Bay Point acquisition, the county hasn't yet moved forward or frequently discussed this list of acquisitions.

So if Pinellas County has this $15 million to spend on conservation land, why not buy Gladys' land?

Paul Cozzie, who's an official with Pinellas County over this potential acquisition program, told me that there's $15 million to spend over 10 years, so if they were to buy Gladys Douglas' property, you know, one purchase one property would have eaten up much of the fund that they want to spread out over multiple properties.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.