Nature makes way for man
By Times Staff
Published April 12, 2006
Is the 8,500-acre Brooker Creek Preserve a preserve, or is it property banked for future use by a county that has run out of other open land?
In the last month, the St. Petersburg Times has written stories about two projects under construction or contemplated inside the nature preserve in northeast Pinellas County. The projects caught a lot of people by surprise. More on that later.
In the first case, bulldozers scraped clean 46 acres for a major county water treatment facility. The site is on the south side of Trinity Boulevard just before the road crosses the Pasco County line, inside a fence that holds a sign stating, "Nature Preserve Boundary: All wildlife and plants protected."
But on that land where all wildlife and plants allegedly are protected, the county is building a water blending plant, an administration building where 30 to 40 employees will report, a maintenance building, three ponds, equipment to feed liquid and solid chemicals into drinking water, parking lots for employees and tour buses, service roads substantial enough for truck deliveries, emergency generators and two 60-foot-tall water storage tanks that might be the tallest structures in northeast Pinellas when the facility opens in about two years.
The water plant will operate 24 hours a day, blending and chemically treating 108-million gallons of water a day.
The second project, not yet under construction, is a horseback-riding center for disabled people. It could include stables, a corral, fences and perhaps a feed barn. The county wants to build it on Old Keystone Road, also in the Brooker Creek Preserve. County officials say that neither the scope of the project nor the exact location has been determined, but construction could begin this year.
Funding for both projects was approved by the Pinellas County Commission during budget deliberations a couple of years ago, but without any publicity in the local media and without any news flashes from the county government.
This situation is reminiscent of one in 1999, when a person riding a horse in the Brooker Creek Preserve came upon a county employee pounding stakes into the ground. Turned out the county was going to clear 10 acres to build a treatment facility to remove smelly hydrogen sulfide from drinking water pumped from the nearby Eldridge-Wilde well field.
Not only did the public not know about the hydrogen sulfide project, neither did the preserve's manager or the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, whose members volunteer to work in the preserve.
There was such an uproar about the project that then-County Administrator Fred Marquis promised to keep everyone better informed if the county wanted to build anything else inside the preserve.
At the same time, the County Commission unanimously approved Resolution 99-196, which re-established the county's commitment to protect the preserve, recognized the preserve's boundaries and stated, "It is imperative that the county communicate with the Friends, general public and other support groups and organizations the status of the major activities affecting the preserve."
Yet here we are, the general public, surprised again about projects in the preserve. The county appears to have ignored its own resolution.
Cathie Foster, chairwoman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, told the Times that her group was not properly notified of planning for the equestrian center and is concerned that more horseback riding could damage the preserve.
The Friends group was notified of plans for the water blending plant, helped identify 46 acres of primarily old pasture on the edge of the preserve for the project, and is picking out native plants for landscaping the property. "We still don't like it," though, Foster said.
Even residents of homes next to the water plant site had no idea anything was planned there until the bulldozers fired up. They still have little information about the scope of the project, what chemicals will be stored there or what kind of traffic the plant might generate on Trinity Boulevard. The Trinity Oaks subdivision is directly across the boulevard from the water plant property, and the Fox Hollow subdivision borders it on another side. Most of the homes are in Pasco County.
The Trinity Oaks community called Pinellas County Utilities in January to ask for a meeting. A tentative date was set, but the meeting was not confirmed by Trinity Oaks, according to county utilities director Pick Talley, who said he met privately with the developers of Trinity to fill them in.
Talley said the county didn't pursue neighborhood meetings more aggressively in part because "we know the neighbors aren't going to be able to see it, smell it or hear it."
The new plant is essential for two reasons, Talley said. First, it will replace the Keller treatment plant that was built in 1955 off Old Keystone Road. The pumps and motors at that plant are worn out and replacement parts no longer are available, Talley said. Second, the county must have a place to blend water it is getting from increasingly diverse sources, such as wells, rivers and the regional desalination plant, because chemical reactions occur inside the pipes if the water is not blended before it is distributed.
For the Pinellas County Utilities Department, preserve land is a logical location for water treatment facilities. The well fields are nearby; so is the major water pipeline into the county. But mostly, it seems logical because the department owns 59 percent of the preserve's 8,500 acres. The department's land was bought piece by piece over many years for utility use and protection of the well fields. Later, the utility land was combined with swaths of environmentally valuable property purchased by the county, and the whole thing was named the Brooker Creek Preserve and touted as a place that would remain in its natural state.
The 46 acres at the water blending facility won't be in its natural state. Neither will land at the equestrian center. For that matter, neither is the land under the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center. All three projects are desirable, serving good purposes. But with little undeveloped land left in Pinellas, I wonder how many more times in the decades ahead county officials will look longingly at those thousands of acres and say, "This is a needed project. Let's put it in the preserve."
Where and when will the county draw the line?
Diane Steinle can be reached at email@example.com.
[Last modified April 12, 2006, 07:46:06]
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