Report backs Blair on lake

Though justifying the cost, it doesn't tell why the lake got more care.

Published August 16, 2007

TAMPA — Amid criticism that Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair may have used his position to get public money spent on the lake where he lives, top officials have rallied to his defense.

On Wednesday, commissioners received a report that says a $600,000 project to improve a chain of lakes that includes Blair's lake, Noreast, is a proper use of taxpayer dollars.

Although commissioners already approved the project's money in January, County Administrator Pat Bean said she scheduled the report for Wednesday's meeting so it will bring "closure" to questions raised in the past two months about Blair's role in the project.

In June, the St. Petersburg Times reported that county crews spent more time on Blair's 8-acre lake than any of the other 229 in the county, and that Blair actively pressed for money to be spent on his lake.

"Everyone has pointed a finger that the only reason this was being done was because of a commissioner," Bean said. "This is not the case."

What the report does not clear up, however, is why Noreast has gotten more county attention than most of the lakes on a 2006 list of Hillsborough's 20 most polluted produced by Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. Of the chain's seven lakes and ponds in the Forest Hills area affected by the $600,000 improvement project, only Cedar Lake East to the north of Noreast made the DEP list.

Only two other lakes on the DEP's list have active county projects to improve drainage or water quality, officials said.

The county's Environmental Protection Commission is spending $75,000 to help clean up the county's largest lake, Thonotosassa. It has high concentrations of fecal matter, lead and ammonia, which can lead to fish kills.

Lake Carroll in Carrollwood is slated for a $843,000 stormwater project over the next three years.

Chin Feng Ho, acting manager of Hillsborough County's stormwater management division, said the other lakes on the DEP list don't have current projects. Tom Ash, the EPC's general manager of environmental restoration, said except for Lake Thonotosassa, his agency doesn't have current pollution projects for the list's other lakes.


Larger lakes ignored

The lack of attention to the DEP lakes was discouraging, said Angie Piche, who lives on Lake Valrico, which is 13 times the size of Noreast. Lake Valrico has high enough concentrations of nutrients that can cause algae blooms to get a spot on the DEP's list.

Like Blair, Piche blames a county drainage project that she said ruined her lake. Unlike with Blair's lake, she hasn't persuaded the county to pay to fix the problem.

"You would think they would go by the DEP list," Piche said. "But you get Brian Blair living on your lake, of course you'll get attention and the money you need. Everybody here is disgusted."

Another lake on the DEP list is Lake Weeks. It's more than five times the size of Noreast. It and Lake Thonotosassa are the only two of Hillsborough's 229 lakes accessible to the public by county boat ramps, said John Brill, a spokesman for the parks department. But no water samples are being taken of it, nor is there a project planned for it.

Noreast is a private lake with 25 waterfront homes and isn't accessible to the public. The other lakes in the Forest Hills neighborhood that feed into Noreast also are considered private with limited public access.

In the coming years, the state will require local governments to fix lakes on the DEP list. Ho said it's not clear how the county will pay for those projects, which could reach into the millions.

Blair has lobbied to get public money to clean up Noreast starting in 2003 before being elected commissioner a year later. A county project pumped muck into Noreast, turning its water green and blue, which is what happens when algae is bleached by the sun.

While there was no question the lake had been fouled, at least three separate reports raised questions about Blair's statements that the county project caused long-term water quality problems. The county, with Blair's approval, hired a professor at the University of Florida's Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, who concluded last year that Noreast and the other lakes in the chain had since recovered and were "fine now."

In January, Blair and the other commissioners approved nearly $1-million to be spent on a project that diverted stormwater away from Noreast Lake.


Blair calls stories 'lies'

That project has since been scaled back. Now costing $600,000, the project shifts much of the treatment to adjacent lakes, all of which feed into Noreast and can affect that lake's condition. About $280,000 will be spent to fix a crushed pipe flowing from Noreast.

Blair maintains his lake is polluted and needs public help, bristling at criticism that he's coercing county staff to fix it.

After residents chided him about his lake during a July 26 meeting, Blair said their complaints were based on "one of the biggest lies that has ever been told by the newspapers." That day, he asked County Attorney Renee Lee to put into writing an earlier oral opinion that he didn't have a conflict of interest voting on the lake project, Lee said.

On Wednesday, Blair smiled after the county's public works director delivered an overview of the revised project. Newspaper accounts of his involvement, Blair told commissioners, had been "one of the most unfair attacks you can imagine."


Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-2402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.