TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. — An untouched piece of wilderness near Tarpon Springs is one hurdle away from being preserved for future generations.
The 14-acre tract of scrub forest and coastal marsh is just feet from the bayou on West Klosterman Rd. near Tarpon Springs.
The land was under threat of potential development, but the recently-passed state budget designated $3 million to preserve the property after a group of neighbors-turned-conservationists — which formed the WK Preservation Group — waged a public campaign and fundraiser to save the land from development.
In November, the group gave ABC Action News a tour of the property, which they said is home to unique plants and wildlife. Gopher tortoise burrows can be easily spotted just feet onto the property from West Klosterman Rd.
The land was bought by Pinellas County Schools in 1990. In Jan. 2020, the school board deemed the land unnecessary to education and decided to release it for sale.
‘Tex’ Carter, the president of the preservation group, said developers hope to buy the land to build condominiums.
So, concerned about losing the pristine forest and gaining the additional traffic a development would create, Carter and others got together with the school board and struck a deal in June 2021.
If the WK Preservation Group can raise $3.2 million before July 1, 2022, it can buy the land and donate it to the county as a nature preserve.
In an interview last week, Carter said fundraising efforts were yielding impressive results, but the group was growing nervous, since it was still well short of its goal with the deadline quickly approaching.
“You always have to be realistic, and the gap between where we were and where the goal was is a whole lot wider than what we had achieved so far,” he said.
However, when state lawmakers passed a budget on Mar. 14, it provided relief to Carter and the others. it includes $3 million to help buy the land from the school district and preserve it.
Carter was almost at a loss for words.
“A choice between elated and what!” he recalled.
Rep. Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) says he was able to earmark the funding with the help of Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor), both of whom represent parts of Pinellas County where similar pieces of wilderness are becoming harder to find as development across the area booms.
The work, however, isn’t done for Carter and the other conservationists.
The budget and preservation funding contained in it still needs the support and signature of Governor Ron DeSantis.
Carter’s belief is that the $3 million expenditure would be money well spent, since it would support both education and preservation.
“The money is not going to a private family or a private landowner or a developer. The money’s actually going to the school board’s budget, and so it’s going to help support education in the future. For the state, it’s really a win-win,” he said. “I think across Florida there’s been an increasing awareness that we can’t develop everything. We need to conserve and preserve properties.”
The governor’s press secretary can’t yet say if DeSantis will approve the funding. She says he’ll thoroughly review it before making a decision before July 1, when the new budget year begins.