tampabay.com

Preservation vs. place to play

By THERESA BLACKWELL
Published March 17, 2007


Should Pinellas County's charter require voters to approve projects like ballfields before they are built in the Brooker Creek Preserve?

That's what environmental activist Lorraine Margeson suggested Thursday at a County Commission workshop on policy issues with the Brooker Creek Preserve.

At least some commissioners were open to exploring the idea.

On the other hand, another group came with this message: We need ballfields.

About two dozen people - officials, parents and children who participate in sports at the East Lake Youth Sports Complex - asked commissioners to stay the course and allow them to expand their complex onto 38.5 acres in the preserve that they leased for $1 per year.

And balancing those needs and promises - preserving Pinellas' last undeveloped acres vs. providing space for children to play - is just one Brooker Creek Preserve issue commissioners will tackle in the coming months.

So Thursday, county staff members got together a lengthy presentation summarizing projects proposed in the preserve, the issues, their history and the policy decisions that the commission will need to make.

"Our goal and objective here is not to have to revisit these issues again and again," County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan said.

Commissioners did not intend to vote on any issue, just to go over all the projects and the issues they raise concerning the preserve. Two additional work sessions are planned in April and May.

As he started Thursday's presentation, County Administrator Steve Spratt said county staffers would like the commissioners to give them some guidance on policies related to the preserve.

"There are various strategies and policies that, frankly, will conflict with each other," he said.

A workshop to address those conflicts was predestined, said Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management, when the county decided to add to the preserve the acres that the Utilities Department bought in the 1980s.

Residents who spoke said they took that as a promise.

Quoting something she had read, Barbara Hoffman told commissioners: "We have less environment now than we ever had in the past - and we have more environment now than we will ever have in the future."

She couldn't stop thinking about how it applies here.

"Please don't let one more inch go," said Hoffman, a Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve board member and a member of the county's Environmental Science Forum, an advisory group that has recommended against several projects the preserve.

Issues discussed during the daylong workshop included changing land use designations in the preserve and considering water facilities such as the water-blending plant proposed for the northern part of the preserve.

When audience members were allowed to speak, Bryan Kutchins, legal counsel to the East Lake Youth Sports Association, gave commissioners the news that the Southwest Florida Water Management District had just told his group it would have to reduce the number of proposed fields at the new site from four to three to better protect the wetlands.

"Three fields will not meet our needs," he said, "and we probably will be back to the well for future needs."

After public comment, several commissioners suggested taking one more look to find another site for the ballfields. Commissioner Calvin Harris took it a step further and said the county should be providing an active recreation program, not just handing out checks to groups like the East Lake group.

"We ought to have a program," he said. "The concern about ballfields ought to be ours, not the parents.' "

In closing comments, Duncan said it had been one of the most stimulating sessions in his two years on the board: two passionate groups concerned about two major quality-of-life issues.

And they hit close to home.

The night before, Duncan said he was thinking about Brooker Creek and preparing for the work session as he pulled into his garage. His 4-year-old son met him at his car and said:

"Daddy, I want to join a soccer league."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or 727 445-4170.