Effort to save preserve gains political muscle

By DIANE STEINLE Editor of Editorials
Published May 20, 2007

The political potency of the movement to save Brooker Creek Preserve grew last week when the St. Petersburg-based Council of Neighborhood Associations signed on.

CONA, made up of representatives from dozens of South Pinellas neighborhood associations, has been a powerful force in St. Petersburg for decades. Last Wednesday, CONA got a visit from Jim McDonald of East Lake, who along with several others is creating a CONA-like organization of north county neighborhood associations. They have sought CONA's advice on how to organize and build the kind of political capital that CONA uses so effectively.

But on Wednesday, McDonald had another, more immediate request: Would CONA join the effort to save the 8, 300-acre Brooker Creek Preserve from ballfields, water plants and any other development Pinellas County government might have in mind?

The answer from CONA was an enthusiastic, and unanimous, yes.

That vote expands deep into south county the base of support for the fight against county proposals to use current preserve lands for ballfields and utility projects. It also represents an in-your-face response to county Commissioner Susan Latvala, who recently said that only a "small group" of people wants the preserve left untouched.

This never was just a north county issue.

"We were as concerned as they were about Brooker Creek Preserve and the chipping away of parts of it, " said CONA president Barbara Heck of the request from north county for help. "If we don't draw the line in the sand, our kids are going to suffer the consequences."

Heck thinks there are similarities between the Brooker Creek Preserve issue and what happened to the Florida Everglades.

County officials say there are good reasons to open portions of the 8, 300 acres to much-needed projects such as soccer fields and water treatment facilities. Heck recalls how officials once thought it was okay to drain parts of the Everglades to provide land for homes and roads for new Florida residents.

"What a mistake that was, " Heck said. "How it devastated the only thing we have in the United States that is like the Amazon. We now know how wrong we were to do that. We don't want to say that about Brooker Creek Preserve 10 years from now."

The preserve issues were the final straw that spurred Jim McDonald and a neighbor, John Miolla, to create the Council of North County Neighborhoods. Miolla is president of the Crescent Oaks homeowners association. McDonald is vice president. The Crescent Oaks subdivision backs up to the Brooker Creek Preserve north of Keystone Road.

McDonald said north county has felt ignored by the county government for a long time. But when county officials started talking about allowing ballfields and water storage tanks in the preserve near their homes, McDonald said, "You know what? We need to be a bigger group."

So they formed a small charter committee and put out a news release. Since the St. Petersburg Times wrote about the new group Wednesday, McDonald said they have received "hundreds" of responses from people or groups that want information.

McDonald said Crescent Oaks' activism is driven by two factors: Residents fear their home values could be hurt by development in the preserve, and they also support protecting the preserve from development so that it can continue to be a wildlife refuge.

"There's about 30 wild turkeys that walk through my yard every day, " said McDonald, who moved here five years ago from Cincinnati. He said deer are regularly seen around the edges of the subdivision's golf course.

McDonald said the Council of North County Neighborhoods doesn't plan to attack county officials but wants to behave professionally and lobby effectively.

CONA's Barbara Heck said that's the way to build political muscle. Don't make it personal. Work hard. Think outside the box. Extend a hand, not a fist.

"We just want to try to remind everyone that we want to do what's right for the county in the long term, " she said.

Diane Steinle can be reached at steinle@sptimes.com.

If you go

Want to visit Brooker Creek Preserve?

The main entrance to the Brooker Creek Preserve is on Keystone Road east of East Lake Road near the Hillsborough County line. A large sign directs visitors to the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center and several hiking trails. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Hiking trails are open daily until 30 minutes before sunset. For more information, call 453-6800.