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Commissioners applauded for buying land near Hammock Park
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Screenshot by TOM GERMOND
Dunedin Commissioner Deborah Kynes uses cards to symbolize the “winning hand” in efforts to preserve land adjacent to Hammock Park.
DUNEDIN – Weeks of residents’ passionate pleas to preserve land on the southeast corner of Hammock Park thwarted a move to develop the 8.5 acres.

Dunedin City commissioners voted 5-0 July 28 to buy the land at $154,023 per acre from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. A large crowd in the auditorium repeatedly thanked and applauded commissioners, bringing tears to the eyes of Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski.

“The passion showed by each and every one of you brings pride to me personally that this is the community I grew up in,” said Ward Bujalski.

She said that staff got “beaten up,” but it wasn’t one person’s fault.

“This was all of our faults. We all take responsibility,” she said.

She and other commissioners thanked the parks and recreation department staff for their role in helping to preserve the land.

“So I hope you all understand there isn’t another group of people that is more to parks and recreation than those people. My God, look at all the great quality of life opportunities that we have here,” she said. “Let’s give them a break, too.”

Commissioners also thanked residents, the Hammock Advisory Committee and Friends of the Hammock for devotion to the issue. They also thanked the church.

Dozens of angry residents and representatives of organizations spoke out at recent City Commission meetings against the church’s plans to sell the land to developers. They were upset that city officials rejected an opportunity in February to buy the land from the church.

Subsequently, Our Lady of Lourdes told city officials the developer, Taylor-Morrison, was willing to provide time to the city to buy the land for $1.34 million contingent upon the developer being reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs that would not exceed $45,000.

Commissioner Bruce Livingston said citizens have made it clear that preserving the land was a priority for the community.

However, he said he has some concerns, such as having to weigh the financial impact of the decision for all Dunedin residents.

“Number one, I feel we have been very rushed in this decision. We have not had enough time to evaluate alternative funding source such as grants to offset the city’s responsibility. Obtaining grants on an after-the-fact basis limits our opportunity for success,” he said.

He said staff has mentioned that many planned parks and recreation projects may have to be delayed or canceled.

Livingston added that the initial financing of the down payment from internal funds sets a dangerous precedent. The large capital outlay, he said, could affect future budgets and possibly lead to tax increases. Nevertheless, he favors moving forward with the acquisition.

“With all that said, I feel the positives of such a wonderful asset to our community far outweighs the financial implications,” he said.

Commissioner Heather Gracy said she spent time that morning on “Gopher Trail,” collecting her thoughts.

“Being within that environment really made me dig deep and search how much your comments and your voice affected this commission to step back and allow the church and a developer to do the same,” Gracy said.

She extended gratitude for residents’ voice and their passion.

“And I’m very proud of the commission to come back in terms like this and get this deal done,” Gracy said.

She wants to make sure that the commission doesn’t “let anything slip away like this ever again.”

Commissioner Deborah Kynes thanked the late former City Attorney, John Hubbard, for the work he had done over the years to preserve green space and create the land development code. Flashing several game cards, she also acknowledged several other community and government leaders, such as state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

“The jack of hearts – that’s Jack Latvala, and we’re going to be shameless in begging him to giving us that Florida Community Trust money,” she said.

She also praised community partners’ heartfelt efforts.

“You know what we call this? We call it a royal flush – a winning hand,” Kynes said.

Commissioner John Tornga said he was pleased with all the support for the land acquisition. He also expressed hope in obtaining state grants and funding from the county through the BP Deep Horizon spill settlement.

“We should be a prime candidate for that, particularly from the reaction we got from the organizations,” he said, referring to groups such as Friends of the Hammock.

Several residents spoke in appreciation of the commission’s efforts.

Steve Fasnacht, chairman of the Hammock Advisory Committee, on behalf of the committee and the Friends of the Hammock, acknowledged the commission’s efforts.

“The hard work you put in has been aspiring. You listened to the citizens, you asked questions, you acted with speed and purpose to find a solution throughout a delicate situation and for that we thank you,” he said.

Hammock Park lovers consider the land at issue critical habitat for several species, such as gopher tortoises, that make their home in the 90-acre park off Alternate U.S. 19.
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