When a $3 million appropriation to save 14 acres from development in north Pinellas County passed the Florida Legislature unopposed earlier this year, activists were hopeful.
State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, a booster of Gov. Ron DeSantis, sponsored the appropriations bill in the House. At a fundraiser for the property in May, Latvala told the crowd he expected the money to come through.
But on Thursday, funding for the untouched forest on West Klosterman Road was among $3.1 billion in projects that DeSantis vetoed from the 2023 state budget.
Now members of the West Klosterman Preservation Group nonprofit have less than a month to raise $2.7 million before the owner of the 14 acres, Pinellas County Schools, potentially markets the land to developers.
“We’re going to put all effort into getting it done,” said treasurer Kay Carter. “We just feel like it needs to not fail. The site is too precious to let it be bulldozed.”
HOW TO DONATE: Donations can be made through the Pinellas Community Foundation
The School Board first put the land on the market in early 2020 and promptly got four offers from housing developers topping $3.3 million.
In June 2021, after more than a year of discussions with West Klosterman Preservation Group, Pinellas County Schools entered a contract with the nonprofit to give them until July 2022 to raise $3 million to buy the land.
On Friday, associate superintendent Clint Herbic said he needed to meet with the group next week to better understand their fundraising options before confirming whether they will be given more time.
The nonprofit had raised $475,000 as of Friday through direct donor outreach, fundraisers and an online campaign.
President Tex Carter said the group will continue to work with the Pinellas Community Foundation, a public charity acting as a repository for the effort, to contact large donors who may be motivated by the sudden veto of the state funding.
“Pinellas County has very, very few undisturbed habitats still in existence,” Carter said. “All the remaining habitats, the small pieces and the larger pieces, are really important and have become increasingly valuable as others are disappearing.”
The group’s goal is to combine the land with the 76-acre Mariner’s Point Management Area directly to the north, which is nonpublic access land Pinellas County has conserved for three decades. Pinellas County officials have agreed to assume ownership of the 14 acres if the nonprofit is successful in its purchase.
The 14-acre parcel is some of the last 1 percent of the original scrub left in Pinellas County. It has more than 60 threatened or endangered plant and animal species living there.
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Ecologist Don Richardson has called the land “an imperiled ecoregion of global importance.”
Last year, residents raised $4.5 million in private donations to save 44 acres near Dunedin from development. Pinellas County and Dunedin contributed the remaining $5.5 million needed to buy the land from the estate of the late Gladys Douglas.
The West Klosterman group had hoped their cause would prompt a similar insurgence. But the Carters said the potential for the state appropriation may have resulted in some complacency among donors.
Now, they say, the need is greater than ever.
“The fight’s not over,” Kay Carter said. “We’ve got to pull out all the stops and work to the very end.”