Breaking trust on preserve

Published May 7, 2007

A gulf as wide as the Grand Canyon has opened up between Pinellas County officials and residents who support protection of Brooker Creek Preserve. How else to explain officials' new idea to fragment the preserve, all the while pretending they are doing the public and the environment a favor? County commissioners have been reviewing a proposed new map of the preserve. Brooker Creek Preserve now consists of about 8, 300 mostly undeveloped acres in northeast Pinellas - about 3, 600 acres originally purchased by county water department revenue to protect the Brooker Creek watershed and well fields in the area, and about 4, 700 acres purchased with other funds.

In its Brooker Creek Preserve Management Plan, the county declared that "the mission of the preserve is to create the opportunity for county residents to experience, understand and enjoy native Florida." Thus, the current map of the preserve shows a huge swath colored green, protected from most development.

The proposed new map has a rainbow of colors representing changes in the possible uses of preserve land. Seventy-nine scattered acres would be plucked out of the preserve because that land has buildings on it or the county wants to use it for construction - "outparcels, " the county calls them, as if the preserve were a shopping mall.

Another 2, 398 acres are a different color on the map because the county could use them for water infrastructure such as pipes or tank farms. Thirty-nine of those acres would be leased to a youth sports group to build ballfields and parking.

County officials seemed pleased as punch that Utilities director Pick Talley surveyed the 3, 600 acres originally purchased by the water department and concluded his department needs "only" 2, 398 acres of the preserve for present and future water projects. "It is a net gain to the preserve of 1, 200 acres, " trumpeted county Environmental Management director Will Davis. Hogwash. Those 1, 200 acres are inside the preserve boundaries already.

What's going on here is that the county wants more freedom to use the preserve for purposes its current "green" designation makes difficult - purposes such as water storage tanks, ballfields, retention ponds, maybe even a desalination plant. Create a new map, change the land use and zoning, and presto, the door is open.

But a fragmented preserve does not serve the needs of wildlife thriving there or future Pinellas residents who will have little open land to enjoy. Fragmentation only makes it easier for Brooker Creek Preserve, a precious green oasis in Florida's most densely populated county, to be treated as a land bank for future needs.

County officials say they are under pressure to provide land for youth sports. They say they also need to be able to use some of what is now the preserve for future drinking water production and treatment.

Well fields and nature preserves co-exist in harmony in other places and can here, too, if limited to nonobtrusive well heads and pipes. The county can build its storage tanks and desalination plants outside the preserve.

And commissioners should be tough enough to resist the pressure for ballfields in the preserve. But if they aren't, they should locate those fields on a northern tract the county already has wrecked by bulldozing it to build a water blending plant. After that, the county should shut the door to active recreation facilities in the preserve.

Ultimately, those who want to preserve the preserve may need to seek protection for it through a county charter amendment, because the current County Commission seems determined to do whatever it wants with the public's land.