Public issues need public's input
By DIANE STEINLE
Published March 21, 2007
The rows of white plastic chairs in the courthouse lobby were empty, and the closed-circuit TV wasn't needed to relay the action from the Pinellas County Commission meeting upstairs. Even in the meeting room, there were lots of empty seats.
County Commissioner Robert Stewart said he was surprised by the low turnout. Fewer than two dozen people showed up to address commissioners on an issue for which an overflow crowd had been anticipated: what to do with Brooker Creek Preserve and the county's other environmentally sensitive lands.
The schedule for Thursday's meeting discouraged public participation: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a workday, with staff presentations of undetermined length first, to be followed by a public comment period of undetermined length and start time.
Commissioners hopefully will not take the low turnout as a gauge of the public's interest, because the discussion that began Thursday is an extremely important public policy debate. The decisions that commissioners make at the conclusion of their discussions will affect generations of Pinellas residents.
There are many questions to consider.
Should the 8,500-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in North Pinellas and the county's other preserves, including Weedon Island in South Pinellas, be protected from all development in the future? Or is it okay to use preserves for beneficial public projects such as water treatment plants, ballfields, fire stations and the like?
What about in an emergency? In a water shortage, is it okay to pump water out of the preserves if doing so could permanently damage the wetlands?
What should be done with the portions of preserves that have been developed with such uses as well fields, education centers and an alcohol-treatment facility?
If officials conclude county preserves should be better protected, what is the best way to do that? Rezone them to a designation that prevents all development? Create a county preservation ordinance?
Or is it best, as some environmental activists suggested Thursday, to amend the county charter to require voter approval for any projects in the preserves?
Public interest in these questions grew after the county approved or began discussing using preserve land for ballfields, two water-treatment facilities, an equestrian center and as a source of well water to irrigate private golf courses.
Yet as Thursday's meeting began, county officials said they valued the preserve for its ecology.
"Brooker Creek Preserve and all its 8,500 acres is the prize of our highly valued environmental lands. It deserves the tag line we have given it as 'Our Wildest Place,' " said Will Davis, the county's director of Environmental Management. "In our urban county of almost a million people ... it is incredible that a property this large has been set aside."
Several commissioners said Thursday the county should look harder for other places to build such projects as ballfields.
However, it was drinking water, not recreation, that emerged as the most important consideration for commissioners Thursday.
Thanks to new drinking water sources, the average amount of water being pumped from well fields in Brooker Creek Preserve is declining, and the likelihood that the county will need to drill many more wells there is not as great. Yet commissioners wondered whether it is risky to give up the opportunity to drill wells and build water treatment facilities in the preserve. What if that water is desperately needed some day?
The County Commission will have two more workshops on these issues in April and May, and hopefully at times more convenient to the working public, because whether to put tougher restrictions on use of publicly owned open land is a topic worthy of everyone's input.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified March 21, 2007, 05:57:00]
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