Latvala's choices irritating group

Published May 12, 2007

Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala is on the board of the Friends of the Brooker Creek Preserve, but this week other board members took the position that she is no friend of the preserve.

In a vote Thursday night, the group's board members said they no longer wanted Latvala to have anything to do with the group.

"We disavow our association with Susan Latvala as a member of our board of directors because she is actively working contrary to the best interests and mission of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, " according to a statement unanimously adopted by the board.

The board could not remove Latvala entirely from the board because not enough board members were present to take that vote.

Friends board chairman Walt Hoskins, an actuary who lives in East Lake, said the board disagrees with these Latvala positions:

- The Pinellas County Utilities Department can do what it wants on land in the preserve purchased with utilities money.

- Ballfields are passive recreation, have no more impact than horse trails and are temporary until the Utilities Department needs them.

- Advocates for the preserve, like the Friends are a very small group.

"For most of this debate, she has pretty much talked the talk, " said Hoskins, 53, "which hides the fact that she is not a friend of the preserve. Now, she no longer talks the talk."

On Friday, Latvala said the positions she takes are part of a balancing act that comes with her job as a commissioner.

"I'm very disappointed that they took this position, " Latvala said. "But I can't let that distract me from my responsibility as a commissioner and the challenges Pinellas County is facing, trying to strike an appropriate balance between protecting the environment and meeting the needs of our community."

In a recent Times story, Latvala called environmentalists opposing projects in the 8, 500-acre Brooker Creek Preserve "a very small group."

But the Friends, once better known for picking up trash and leading nature hikes in the preserve, have built a reputation for effective advocacy in recent years.

The Florida Wildlife Federation, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, recently named the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve as Florida's 2007 Conservation Organization of the Year.

Along with the positions cited by Hoskins, the Friends object to an ordinance Latvala has proposed to protect the county's park and preserve lands. The ordinance calls for a public vote before the county could sell county parks or environmental lands, with a list of exceptions.

"It's like a lot of legislation: the title and what's inside don't work, " Hoskins said. "Her ordinance has four exceptions that you could drive a Mack truck through."

The Friends have their own plan to protect the preserve through zoning changes. And other environmentalists are pushing a charter amendment.

Latvala said commissioners, county staff and the Friends will never agree about the Utilities-purchased acres in the preserve. And she does continue to support the ballfields expansion on Old Keystone Road.

On the other hand, she said acquiring additional park and preserve land, like the McMullen tract in Wall Springs Park, is the commission's top priority.

"Everything we do is a balancing act, " she said.

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

To learn more

Friends' mission

The mission of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve is to provide public support for the preserve through fundraising, volunteer programs and education. To learn more, visit www.friendsofbrookercreekpreserve.org, call (727)934-2680 or send e-mail to info@friendsofbrookercreekpreserve.org.