Pinellas residents win $2.5 million state grant to save 14-acre forest

Two and a half years into their fight to save part of Pinellas County’s last remaining forest from a real estate developer’s bulldozer, a group of residents have helped secure the financing needed to purchase the land to be preserved.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Friday awarded Pinellas County $2.5 million to purchase the 14 acres on West Klosterman Road, which is one of the last 1% of native brush remaining in the county.

Since beginning their mission in early 2020, the West Klosterman Preservation Group, a nonprofit made up of neighbors and supporters of the land, has raised $544,000 through online campaigns, beer tours, signaling events and other efforts.

The state grant, one of 238 awarded statewide, helped them bridge the gap in a time crunch to hit the $3 million asking price by property owner Pinellas. County Schools.

Related: Tampa Bay got millions from lawmakers for local projects. Here is what they are.

“We got all the voters in this deal to support us and support that this should be a reservation, not a condominium,” said Tex Carter, president of the preservation group.

West Klosterman Preservation Group President Tex Carter, left, and his wife and group treasurer, Kay Carter, join a tour of 14 acres owned by Pinellas County Schools, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Tarpon Springs . [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The school system bought the land in 1990 but never ended up developing it. It is now home to more than 60 threatened or endangered plant and animal species.

When the school board first put the land up for competition in early 2020, it received four bids from property developers for a total of $3.3 million. By then, the neighbors got wind of it, then formed the nonprofit and pressured the school board to give them time to save it.

School officials agreed to sit on offers from developers, but fundraising came slowly from most small donors. In June 2021, the school board gave the nonprofit a firm deadline: They had until July 2022 to raise $3 million.

The preservation group thought it had the money when a $3 million appropriation was passed by the Florida Legislature this year.

But the award was among $3.1 billion worth of projects Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed in June on the 2023 state budget.

The funding granted Friday by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee was one of $175 million awarded to 238 projects sponsored by lawmakers across the state.

The commission noted that no projects identical in “amount or purpose” to DeSantis’ vetoes were considered for these local grants. But West Klosterman’s project went ahead with nothing really different in the project description except for the dollar amount requested.

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“I’m glad it’s being funded, and I’m glad the land is being preserved,” said state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the appropriations bill and grant application. local for the project.

The West Klosterman Preservation Group plans to combine the 14 acres with the 76-acre Mariner’s Point Management Area directly to the north, which is non-public access land that Pinellas County has conserved for three decades. Pinellas County officials agreed to assume ownership of the 14 acres.

The preservation group’s treasurer, Kay Carter, said there were still logistical steps to go through. Pinellas County is the recipient of the state grant, so the money will need to be transferred to schools in Pinellas before the land is turned over to the county.

Although Mariner’s Point is not open to the public, she said the group is considering potentially having public access for the 14 acres.

She noted the community effort that brought the project to this point. Nearly 1,000 people donated and countless supporters shared the message on social media. The Pinellas Community Foundation acted as custodian of the donations, and county officials pledged their support.

The school board, which was initially reluctant to reject the developers’ offers, ended up supporting the association’s goal.

“I’m very cautiously ecstatic,” Kay Carter said. “It’s been long, so it feels really, really good.”