County still in running for land on waterfront
By ROBERT FARLEY
PALM HARBOR -- The owners of 88 acres of pristine gulf-front land have asked the Pinellas County Commission to wait a month before acting on development plans so they can continue discussing possibly selling the land to the county for a park.
County officials have commissioned two appraisals of the McMullen family property. They will use those appraisals in considering whether to buy some or all of the McMullen property and adding it to Wall Springs Park. Those appraisals are expected to be completed this week.
The county has pursued such a purchase of the property -- the largest remaining piece of open waterfront land in North Pinellas County -- for decades. Many feared that was a lost cause when the McMullen family signed a contract to sell the land to Orlando-based Gulf One Property Trust, which has filed plans to build up to 330 houses and townhouses on 94.75 acres owned by the McMullens and another family.
A ground swell of community opposition quickly arose from neighbors, environmentalists and the Girl Scouts, who own a camp next to the McMullen property. They have demanded that commissioners not only reject the development plan, but buy the property and preserve it.
The County Commission was scheduled to consider Gulf One's rezoning request Dec. 18, but attorney Tim Johnson, who represents the McMullens and Gulf One, told the county last week to postpone the hearing until Jan. 15.
"It will give us time to talk to the county about all these matters," Johnson said. "Everything is on hold until we get these appraisals. There are too many questions unanswered to determine our course of action. It may or may not involve Pinellas County owning all or parts of the property."
The McMullens and Gulf One, whose relationship has evolved into a joint venture, are willing to listen to offers from the county, Johnson said.
"I think the McMullens have been willing to cooperate all along with the county, as long as the numbers are reasonable," he said.
Obviously, Johnson said, the purchase price would have to be more than the contract price reached with Gulf One. He would not disclose that price. If a deal cannot be reached, he said, Gulf One is prepared to move forward with its development plan.
County planners have not made their recommendation whether the rezoning should be granted, but Johnson said he received "some indication" the county's staff planned to recommend denial.
Neither Johnson nor county real estate manager Ellyn Kadel would discuss what part of the property the county would buy if it only purchased some of the site.
The very prospect of a partial purchase has some residents nervous.
"That is the $64,000 question," said Jerry Miller, 53, a Baywood Village resident who leads a group known as Citizens Against Rezoning.
Opponents of the Gulf One project have been adamant that anything less than the county purchasing the entire McMullen property would be unacceptable.
"We need the entire property," sad Bob Parcelles Jr., an environmental consultant and retired nature photographer who lives in Pinellas Park.
Miller insists the fight to preserve the property is not simply an effort to preserve the spectacular view of the property's woods that many residents now enjoy. It is a one-time opportunity, he said, to preserve a diverse habitat for a variety of animals, including fox squirrels, gopher tortoises and manatees.
As densely-populated Pinellas County nears a built-out state, preservation opportunities like this will not come again, he said.
"Enough is enough," Miller said. "Let's save something for future generations to see what Florida used to look like, and still does."
In April, commissioners agreed to pay nearly $7-million to Daniel G. McMullen for the 35 acres immediately to the south of the property now up for rezoning. County officials plan to add that to the recently opened Wall Springs Park. The remaining 88 acres is owned by D. Guy McMullen Properties Inc. and D.G. McMullen Limited Partnership, both of which include various McMullen family members.
Price has always been the issue with the McMullen property. The county has been negotiating with the McMullen family for several years. Those negotiations did not stop when the plans to develop the property were initiated, said County Commissioner Susan Latvala.
"We never got out of it," Latvala said.
Latvala said the county can probably afford the purchase, even in the midst of the current budget crunch.
"We don't have $20-million in bank today," Latvala said. But in the next five years, she said, more than $10-million will come available from Penny for Pinellas funds set aside for the purchase of park and preservation lands. The county also might be able to tap into the Florida Forever fund, she said.
A purchase would require the County Commission to make the McMullen property a priority on its 10-year land acquisition wish list. If it does, that might mean putting off other land purchases. The most likely projects to be bumped are the purchase of two 1-acre beach access parks at undetermined locations south of Clearwater Beach, Kadel said.
"We're still hopeful we'll be able to work out a deal," Latvala said. "We want to buy it. It's a matter of coming to an agreement on price and working out the details."
-- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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