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    In Ozona, trail creates dividing line

    Should the public have access to a preserve or should it be off-limits? That question stirred intense differences.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


    OZONA -- As is custom, the 35 people assembled in the Ozona Village Hall followed the Pledge of Allegiance with a rousing rendition of God Bless America to the accompaniment of a piano.

    Then Bob Fortner, the pastor at Unity Church of Palm Harbor, offered an opening prayer that closed with, "Thank you, God, for letting us live in a community so close to paradise."

    The reason for the big crowd, at least by Ozona standards, was a discussion of the future of the 8.3-acre Ozona Preserve.

    In this small village, which prides itself on its homey, old-time community feel, the preserve is a source of pride and fierce loyalty. To those who led the push for Pinellas County's purchase of the property, it is an environmental oasis.

    So it was no wonder that during a recent community meeting about whether a trail should grace the preserve -- which is now off-limits to the public -- the debate got a bit intense.

    On one side were those who believe that the preserve ought to be left alone, that a trail represents an intrusion into an environmentally sensitive area.

    On the other side were those who think that residents ought to be able to enjoy the natural wonder and that a trail would not harm any animals or plants.

    The debate comes as the county begins writing a management plan for the preserve.

    Pinellas County's environmental lands division manager Craig Huegel said it was up to the community.

    "I didn't come here with an agenda," Huegel said. "I do not want to drive the bus on this."

    The Ozona Preserve is a "community-based resource," Huegel said, and it would take a groundswell of community support for the county to consider a trail.

    Reggie Hall, president of Friends of the Ozona Wildlife Preserve, said a trail amounts to "an invasion" and would break the County Commission's 1997 promise to keep the preserve closed to the public. The preserve is intended as a haven for plants and animals, Hall said.

    "Let's just let it be," Hall implored, drawing applause from a handful of residents.

    Other residents argued that a small trail wouldn't hurt the plants or animals and would allow residents whose properties don't back up to the preserve to see it.

    "There is no way for people who don't abut the preserve to appreciate it," said William Dorroh, who has been living in Ozona for three years.

    "If no one has the opportunity to see it," he said, "it's hard to appreciate it. I think we could probably find a common ground."

    "It seems to me a lot of people want an extra large back yard that no one else has access to," added Dala Zinober.

    The preserve has been more than 10 years in the making. In 1988, a group of residents led by Hall persuaded the county to purchase 5.3 acres backing up to homes on Ridge Road and North Street. In 1998, the county purchased a 1.3-acre property east of Banana Street for $125,000. Last May, the county spent $115,000 on a 1.7-acre tract that connects the other two pieces.

    If the county were to build a trail, Huegel said, it likely would be a boardwalk-style path starting at the preserve's only public access, a small property on North Street. The boardwalk would lead to the first big, open area to view the palmettos and birds, where it would stop. There isn't enough room for a loop trail.

    It would allow people to walk out and say, "What beautiful nature," Huegel said. "It allows you to see inside and see how beautiful the preserve is."

    There is some benefit to allowing limited public access, Huegel said. "That connection is important to develop an environmental ethic," he said.

    And it is possible to develop a trail that would be environmentally sensitive.

    "If we put in a little trail, I can tell you right now, it's not going to hurt the wildlife," he said.

    Several residents, including Hall, were not convinced. Hall, who called the preserve an "island oasis" for some animals, argued that any human intrusion into the preserve would negatively affect the wildlife.

    Huegel also raised the issue of fencing. Only some parts of the preserve are fenced off.

    Several residents who live along the fenced areas complained about the appearance of the 7-foot-high chain-link fence and argued that it isn't fair that other residents have open access to the preserve.

    "I just think, if we're going to shut this down, shut it down completely," said resident John Thurmond.

    Other residents asked if the county would erect a more attractive fence, perhaps a split-rail fence. Huegel said it is unlikely that the county would take down existing fences. It is a help to the county to know the preserve's boundaries, he said. And the cost of other types of fencing is prohibitive, he said. If residents want to band together to donate money for a split-rail fence, Huegel said, "Then we'll talk."

    The management plan will include a survey of plants and animals in the preserve. While the preserve at one time was home to fox and bobcats -- and might still be -- it is unlikely the small preserve could sustain such medium-sized animals for very long, Huegel said.

    Also, the county will try to restore the preserve to its natural state. That may mean restoring the water flow from the preserve that was altered by development.

    "If there's a way for us to fix it, we will," Huegel said.

    The county also spent a $30,000 state grant to remove from the preserve exotic plants, such as Brazilian peppers.

    As for a trail, Huegel said that issue may be dead.

    "The decision is made as far as I'm concerned," Huegel said. "I'm not going to move forward (with plans for a trail). I don't hear overwhelming support for it."

    County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who attended the meeting, said the county would be happy to leave the preserve as is.

    "A preserve is to preserve," Latvala said. "For the time being, rest assured it's going to stay that way.

    "Enjoy the fact that it's there," she said. "It's going to be there for a long, long time."

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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