Outgoing City Attorney John Hubbard works behind a pile of paperwork in his law offices on Main Street in Dunedin.
DUNEDIN – John Hubbard has not been a passive public official.
As he prepares to retire, 37 years after first taking the reins as Dunedin’s municipal attorney, no one will accuse him of standing by while the city changed and grew.
They won’t, because Hubbard was right there, encouraging the change, writing new laws no one had tried before and helping mold his community into the quaint, bustling streets he still calls home.
“I’m really happy to have been in a community that is truly different because it had a vision for the future,” Hubbard said. “My main contribution, I think, has been to encourage every commission I’ve represented to do anything they believe is right, if it helps the people of Dunedin.
“If it’s never been done before, so what? Try it.”
Perhaps it was easier to push for innovative city practices after Hubbard’s first decade in municipal law included two major cases with far reaching consequences. One legally established the concept of “impact fees,” changing how Florida paid for new development. The other allowed the state to purchase the land that became Honeymoon Island State Park, which has become the most popular Florida state park several years running.
Hubbard’s long-term relationship with Dunedin began with long-established familial ties. His grandfather moved to the town in 1922 and raised Hubbard’s mother and uncle where Hubbard’s five grandchildren now live.
Hubbard himself moved to Dunedin in 1971, after five years with the U.S. Air Force in the Office of Special Investigations during the Vietnam War. The University of Florida law graduate took a job with a firm on Main Street called Baird and Jennings. Working with Chuck Baird, then the attorney for Dunedin, Hubbard got his first taste for the varied activities of municipal law, and fell in love.
“I enjoyed the municipal work more than others, no question about that,” he said. “That was a very exciting time for the city of Dunedin.”
At that time, the Builders Association of Pinellas County had sued the city, arguing that new fees charged for hooking development into the existing water and sewer infrastructure were a type of tax to which the city government wasn’t entitled. The city had levied the impact fee to help pay for eventual expanded infrastructure to accommodate increasing growth in the 1970s.
Hubbard had just taken on full responsibility as Dunedin’s attorney in 1974 and opened a new practice with canoeing buddy John Frazer in 1975.
“At first, I thought it was just going to be a local fight, and it went beyond that because the development community decided they didn’t want to pay impact fees; they wanted to put the impact on the people who lived in the community,” Hubbard said. “We changed that.”
The case made it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was passed over for review, thus upholding the decision made at the district court of appeal and the Florida Supreme Court: “... that those who are creating the inordinate demand for services ought to bear the prime cost of the same,” as stated in one judge’s opinion.
It was the first time impact fees had been litigated. The case established the now fairly common practice and is still cited in modern cases on the subject.
“I’m really pleased to have been a part of that,” Hubbard said. “It saved the city of Dunedin millions upon millions of dollars and I can’t imagine what the savings have been for communities statewide.”
However, the battle to find the balance between developer pressure, the needs of existing residents and the impact on the future community was far from over. Back in the 1970s, residents could still smell the orange blossoms while walking downtown, Hubbard recalled. As more development moved in, the city had to come up with ways to deal with new growth.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, Dunedin did a lot of very forward looking things,” Hubbard said.
Some of the new ideas were his own. As a way to eliminate billboards, the city established a sign code ordinance, before anyone else in the area had considered the idea, Hubbard said.
Hubbard also wrote a land dedication ordinance that required new residents to contribute to the city’s fund for parks.
“That’s one of the reasons that Dunedin has an absolutely superior park system to many, many communities, and we didn’t have to spend taxpayer’s revenues on it,” he said.
As Dunedin’s legal representative, Hubbard played a part in the state’s acquisition of Honeymoon Island National Park, helping to block the then-owner from obtaining a new permit to dredge lime rock from the Gulf that would have created more land for a giant planned development on the island. He traveled to Tallahassee every time each of the property’s seven pieces were up for purchase, encouraging state lawmakers to go ahead with their plan to preserve the pristine land for future generations.
Hubbard’s philosophy has always been a hands-on approach, one that encourages innovation in legislation, even if there’s no precedent for it.
“Every city’s different,” Hubbard said, arguing that one-size-fits-all laws can only cripple local governments. “Who wants to be like everyone else? Dunedin’s motto has been delightfully different.”
Hubbard said he’s been fortunate to work with commissioners who have seen their elected positions as a service to the community, not a job. Though, to be fair, Hubbard wrote that requirement into the city charter himself.
“And a great, great, great majority of them think that way,” he said.
Another key to being a successful city official, elected or otherwise, is an appreciation for the long term.
“I think you have to have a minimum of a 50-year perspective,” Hubbard said. “What is this going to do in my community in 50 years? Is it going to trash it up? Or is it going to make it better than the surrounding communities in some way, by being more aesthetically pleasing?”
In the end, the job of a city attorney comes down to writing each city document with the intention of protecting Dunedin residents as much as possible, Hubbard said.
“We’re careful enough when we do our work that we try to avoid the possibility of litigation,” he added.
Hubbard, “passionately devoted” to the arts in his community, is a longtime supporter of the Dunedin Fine Arts Center. He has served as president of the center’s board, as well as president of the foundation for the Dunedin Public Library.
On a state level, Hubbard has long been an active participant of the Florida Municipal Attorney’s Association, serving as association president for a year as well as receiving the Paul S. Buchman Award of Excellence.
The Florida Bar Association also honored him in 1995 for his frequent lectures on ethics and public records laws across the state.
Hubbard admitted that he never foresaw himself practicing municipal law while just a student. However, the sheer variety of his job has kept him interested over the years.
“Every day, there’s something different, everywhere from impact fees to people slipping and falling to somebody getting bitten by a raccoon in one of the parks,” Hubbard said. “Writing people’s wills is swell and everything. But when you get to do something that affects a lot of people you say to yourself, ‘I am really happy that I did something that … made their lives better, that made my community better.’”
Along with the city of Dunedin, Hubbard has had Belleair Beach, Belleair Bluffs and Tarpon Springs as clients. In fact, his first city client was Oldsmar, where he served for 14 years before leaving in a turnover of elected officials. He had a five-year run with Belleair Beach and acted as attorney for both Belleair Bluffs and Tarpon Springs from 1989 to 2005.
In 2005, Hubbard underwent open heart surgery, after which he passed the responsibility for Belleair Bluffs to partner at his firm, Thomas Trask, and handed off Tarpon Springs to partner Jim Yacavone, as a means to reduce stress, he said.
But he kept Dunedin on as a client.
“My time in Dunedin has been very stable, without any controversy,” he commented.
Indicative of his close ties with the community, he pointed out in the very next breath how he raised all four of his children in Dunedin, two of whom were born in the city. All but three have moved back to live where he and his wife, Barbara, still reside.
“Now my children are back and their children are growing up here. And I couldn’t be any happier than that,” he said. “Dunedin’s a great place to grow up.”
Hubbard plans to spend more and more of his time – as he gradually withdraws from duties at his firm – fishing, feeding his “voracious” appetite for the written word and doing more activities with his five grandchildren.