Keep a vigilant eye on preserve

Published May 29, 2007

Pinellas residents fighting to preserve the 8, 300-acre Brooker Creek Preserve may have won a small victory. County commissioners seem to be shying away from allowing ballfields to be built in the preserve, and that's a good thing.

Yet the need for vigilance is greater than ever. Commissioners have two other environmental issues on their agenda that warrant public scrutiny. They are redrawing the map of Brooker Creek Preserve to change the way some of the land is designated, and they are drafting an ordinance that would affect most parks, preserves and land management areas in the county.

Officials say the ordinance would protect and preserve county-owned green space. But the proposal has some big gaps and troubling exceptions.

If the ordinance became law, the county would create a list of "properties of critical concern" - all the major county parks including Fort De Soto, Sand Key, Sawgrass, Lake Seminole and Wall Springs, and environmental lands such as Shell Key, Mobbly Bayou, Weedon Island, Alligator Lake and Brooker Creek Preserve. The ordinance would forbid the county to "sell, convey or transfer" those properties without voter approval in a referendum.

That sounds good. But the county could still lease, license or dedicate those lands to someone. It was the county's past decision to "license" 38 acres of Brooker Creek Preserve to a private youth sports group for ball fields that helped fuel the fight to "preserve the preserve."

The ordinance also gives officials several ways around the ban on selling park and environmental lands. One exception would allow the county to sell or give away land for "transportation- or utilities-related infrastructure." Since there is no limitation on the amount of land that could be set aside for that purpose, it is not unreasonable to envision some future commission building a highway through Brooker Creek Preserve or putting a desalination plant in a park.

The exceptions also would permit commissioners to exchange existing park or preserve lands for "reasonably equivalent" ones - whatever that means - and to sell or transfer lands to any other governmental unit for a "public purpose, " defined by the County Commission, of course.

The proposed ordinance just leaves too much to the discretion of commissioners, and it can be amended or repealed with a commission vote.

The debate over Brooker Creek Preserve has highlighted the need for stronger protections for all county environmental lands. The county's 2005 Recreation, Open Space and Culture System Master Plan explains why: "As the county urbanizes, as vacant land becomes scarce and as the demand for active recreation facilities increases, the preserves and regional parks are coming under increasing pressure. ... The county needs to resist this pressure in order to protect these priceless resources for future generations."

The proposed ordinance falls well short of offering reasonable protection. It would have to be substantially strengthened to be of real use. The best protection for these lands would be a county charter amendment that gives voters control.