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Dunedin residents: Preserve land for park
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Photo by TOM GERMOND
Dozens of residents watch the televised City Commission meeting outside Dunedin City Hall June 2. They are opposed to plans for a proposed residential development on land adjacent to Hammock Park.
DUNEDIN – Brandishing signs and gathering in front of Dunedin City Hall, about 100 area residents persuaded city commissioners June 2 to reconsider their decision to reject an offer to buy church-owned land adjacent to the 90-acre Hammock Park.

Numerous residents, several shouting from outside the City Commission’s auditorium, asked city commissioners to prevent the sale of 8.7 acres of woodlands that Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church owns to a residential developer. Some were critical of recent development in the city and the loss of green space.

Sue Humphreys, president of the Friends of the Hammock, said the nonprofit organization had been misinformed about details of the sale and had written commissioners urging them to keep the lines of communication open.

The townhouse development would destroy native habitat, cause irreparable damage to a fragile gopher tortoise habitat and threaten the Cedar Creek estuary, among other concerns, Humphreys said, and the group’s trust in the city staff and commission has been diminished.

“Our numbers will grow as will our allies and we are not going away,” she said.

Commissioners Feb. 18 rejected a $1.2 million offer from Our Lady of Lourdes, 750 San Salvador Drive, for the property.

Staff told commissioners then that they understand the value of beauty of the parcels for sale, but they must first recognize the recreation deficiencies outlined in their strategic plans, such as providing for parkland on the east and southside of town and the replacement of aging facilities, such as the Highlander Pool.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said that commissioners voted Feb. 18 based on information that was provided to them at the time.

“In hindsight … our staff, our citizen committees and we as elected leaders could have done a better job coming together as a team and focusing ourselves more on the possibilities rather than the financial transaction,” Ward Bujalski said.

More important, she said, was to talk about how to proceed.

She sought support from the commission to give direction to staff to research funding sources, the value of the land and a payment time. She also asked that staff suggest an offer amount and provide other information that was not presented to the commission earlier. Commissioners by consensus agreed to her request.

“Let’s do it ethically; let’s do it legally. Let’s try to work with our community,” Commissioner Deborah Kynes said.

City Attorney Tom Trask said that denying the developers’ request for a zoning change could subject the city to possible litigation. An argument could be made, Trask said, that commissioners “purposely denied the application for the purposes of purchasing the property through a backup contract.”

Commissioners Bruce Livingston said he appreciated the residents’ feedback.

“We live here just like you do. I’ve lived here 30 years,” he said. “Green space is really important to all of us.”

He said he heard enough information to reconsider the commission’s sale of the property.

“But let’s take steps that are thoughtful and pragmatic and not set the city up for future legal ramifications and backlash,” Livingston said.

Contending that Hammock Park is a cornerstone, Commissioner John Tornga said commissioners have protected green space. Some people, he said, contend that commissioners do too much of that.

Scott Rehm, a Lady of Lourdes parishioner and Realtor for the sale, said church officials have a contract to sell the 8.7 acres.

He said the parish and the Diocese of St. Petersburg are concerned about the increased liability exposure stemming from trespassers. Insurance advisers, he said, recommended the possibility of fencing off the property.

Church officials studied the long-term strategic alternatives to financially support capital projects for the campus as well as enhancing safety and efficiency for the school.

Although the best allowable use of the property was defined as residential development, the church thought it was prudent to offer the land to the city.

“In an effort of good faith, we extended a 45-day due diligence period that was provided for the city to conduct a feasibility study,” Rehm said.

After the commission voted against purchasing the property, the church initiated discussions with Taylor-Morrison, a national homebuilder.

Some residents were critical of the church’s actions. Rehm said he feels the church has done everything “as being a community partner, for that matter a very good partner, with the city and all the members of this community.”

Suncoast Sierra Club representatives also spoke. Jim House, a member of the club’s Conservation Committee, said Pinellas is the most developed county in the state.

“We are also unique here because we have the lowest percentage of green space of any margin,” he said.
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