EAST LAKE — While most University of Florida students are focused on final exams, Mathew Poling is suing Pinellas County.
Representing himself Monday, the 18-year-old college student filed a lawsuit against the county government that claims buildings constructed in the Brooker Creek Preserve violated state law that designates the land for preservation.
He also is trying to stop the county from moving forward with land use changes that would allow a reservoir and utilities buildings more than five stories tall on 260 preserve acres north of Keystone Road.
This is only the latest battle for Poling, an environmental activist who was 15 when he first started fighting to protect the 8,000 acres of the Brooker Creek Preserve.
But this time, he's going to court against a county government with deep pockets and a staff of lawyers.
"This has taken so long, it's finally going to happen," Poling said of the lawsuit. "Of course, I'm nervous about it, too."
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Poling's home near the Tarpon Woods subdivision backs up to the preserve.
His first pet, a corn snake, slithered into the garage when he was 5. Neighbors in his subdivision knew who to call when they had snakes in their yards. He would remove the reptiles carefully, poisonous or not.
Carole Poling, his mother, has a medical billing business and his father, Steve Poling, represents building product manufacturers. He said his son is confident of his abilities.
"He's very serious, driven and refuses to give up," Steve Poling said.
Father and son joined the Saturday hikes at Brooker Creek Preserve and before long they were leading them. Then they served on the board of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve.
At 15, Mathew Poling was too young to hold the office of chairman legally, so the board created the position of "senior executive" just for him. The chairwoman under him praised his talent for computer research, his organizational skills and his ability to manage discussion without offending people.At a board meeting in 2006, he led the Friends to oppose ballfields in the preserve.
"I don't think we've ever said formally that we're opposed to building ballfields (on the preserve),'' he said. "And I think we ought to do that tonight.''
Over the past three years, his quest to protect the preserve has never wavered. In subsequent fights over building an equestrian center or pumping water for golf courses, he opposed county plans.
His commitment has been noticed by those he opposes.
After a commission work session a few months ago, Commissioner Karen Seel told Poling: "Thank you for your passion and for being so knowledgeable."
For most of those fights, he had the support of the Friends and other environmentalists.
This time, he stands alone.
"He's been talking with them for months or even years about these issues and it's just kind of fallen on deaf ears," Steve Poling said. "He feels the county has done something wrong and the lawsuit is his last resort to prove it."
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Mathew Poling's goal is to practice land use and environmental law someday. But when he saw the county moving forward with land use changes that he says threaten 260 acres of the preserve, he accelerated his plans.
Monday, Poling tried to schedule a hearing date with the county attorney, Jim Bennett, who said an attorney from his staff would give Poling a call. Then Poling delivered letters to the County Commission. In the letter, he says:
"I have done an extensive amount of research over the past few months and am confident that I will ultimately be successful in this action."
But if the county will negotiate, the letter says, he's ready to talk.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.