Protecting Florida’s Natural Treasures from Development

By: Rev. David Shelor

Located just north of heavily developed Clearwater Beach, Florida, the Caladesi and Honeymoon Islands State Parks are the most visited parks in Florida — and for good reason. The islands boast pristine wildlife habitat, award winning beaches, and incredible hiking and kayaking trails. They are a birder’s paradise, a beautiful destination for family occasions and a fantastic place to seek solace. The islands also have a rich history, initially providing a home for the native Tocobago people, then farmland for European settlers, and then a rustic honeymoon spot for newlyweds in the 1940s (hence the name change from Hog Island to Honeymoon Island).

Honeymoon Island State Park

Unfortunately, in the 1960s, these robust islands were nearly paved over and supplanted by high-rise buildings when a developer purchased Honeymoon Island and wanted to build a 16,000-person housing complex using fill that was dredged from the Gulf of Mexico.

Caladesi Island State Park in Florida

Mercifully, before much progress was made, the dredging permit expired and local activists prevented its renewal. Soon those same activists began advocating for the preservation of these natural jewels. I am proud that the members of nearby First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin, where I currently serve as the pastor, were among those early advocates and played an integral role in protecting these islands and ensuring their long-term preservation. From organizing letter writing campaigns to the state legislature to leveraging federal Land and Water Conservation Funds, the members of our congregation approached the effort grounded in our Christian faith. Psalm 24 declares: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” The natural world speaks of the wonder, mystery and glory of God. In turn, we are called to honor, protect and enjoy the good creation God has made.

This same deep commitment has carried into current preservation efforts as well. Recently, Gladys Douglas Hackworth, a long-term member of the congregation died, leaving behind her property of 44 acres of pristine Florida scrub, the last habitat of elevated rosemary bald in Pinellas County. Pinellas is the most densely populated county in Florida and home to a hundred threatened Gopher Tortoises, the only tortoise naturally found east of the Mississippi. Before her death, Ms. Hackworth had been attempting to turn this vital local natural resource — just three miles inland from Caladesi Island — into a natural park. Unfortunately, she was not successful.

Gladys Douglas Hackworth Preserve in Dunedin, FL

After her death, the trust she created with her estate continued her negotiations for preservation. Sadly, after negotiations with the county again broke down, the trust signed a lucrative sales contract with a developer to build townhomes, which would have sold well given the area’s high-demand real estate market and the property’s frontage on a 55-acre lake.

Fortunately, the announcement of the developer’s sales contract became the tipping point for the local community. “Save the Gladys Douglas Hackworth Preserve!” became the cry. First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin again joined the efforts. As one of four local nonprofits who are “residuary beneficiaries” of Ms. Hackworth’s Trust, the Church was not involved in the negotiation of the sale of the property, but did stand to benefit financially. However, we also recognized our unique position as stewards of creation. Immediately, the church’s governing board took a public position, calling for the preservation of the land, even if it sold for a lower price.

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Rev. David Shelor outside the First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin in Florida.

Again, preservation of God’s good Creation was key and far outweighed any monetary benefit. Thankfully, due to the commitment of local city and county governments and the dedicated work and financial generosity of local advocates, including the members of First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin, an offer matching the listed purchase price has been made. We look forward to the protection of this incredible land for generations to come.

Reflecting on this important stewardship work, we recognize that our beautiful lands and waters are God’s good gift to us. We are not owners, only caregivers.

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