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Commission to decide whether voters have say in land protection

This is a big week for those who care about Pinellas County's preservation land. For more than two years, residents have fought to protect the Brooker Creek Preserve from projects like ballfields once proposed there. And at Shell Key, environmentalists successfully fought to ban dogs so endangered birds have a chance to nest.

Tuesday, county commissioners are expected to vote on whether to move forward with a charter amendment that would give voters more control over what happens in environmental lands.

Then Thursday, commissioners will take up a revised Brooker Creek Management Plan in a work session. It includes provisions that could make it easier to build utilities projects in the Brooker Creek Preserve. A commission vote is scheduled for Aug. 19.

The charter amendment commissioners will discuss Tuesday would require voter approval before county officials can sell environmental land in the Brooker Creek, Mobbly Bayou, Shell Key and Weedon Island preserves and in 15 other management areas throughout the county.

Commissioners may also decide to add restrictions on leasing and licensing, as the Friends of Brooker Creek have requested and county staff now recommends, which would delay a vote to Aug. 19.

"I'm going to go Tuesday and celebrate that we will have better protection than we had last year," said Lorraine Margeson, the St. Petersburg environmental activist who first proposed a charter amendment. "And we'll keep making it better."

After the Times reported that the proposed amendment would still allow leasing and licensing preserve land without voter approval, as in the 30-year lease of more than 38 Brooker Creek Preserve acres for ballfields, the county was hit with a flurry of e-mails and letters.

County staff responded with a new recommendation: adding a requirement for voter approval before leasing or licensing any interest in preserve lands for more than 10 years.

Why 10 years? As Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management, explains it, the 10-year limit would discourage uses that require a substantial capital investment. In the case of ballfields, for example, the cost to build the fields would not be worth it if the fields could only be used for 10 years.

So could the county sell some of the rights without a referendum, such as widening the power line easement as Progress Energy considered last year?

"You can convey an easement without a referendum, provided that the purpose of the easement is in agreement with the land use, zoning and management plan," said Davis.

Staff also recommend a clarification of the language voters would read on the ballot. If commissioners approve it, as expected, the amendment would be on the ballot in November.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

>>TO LEARN MORE

Environmental lands, two public meetings

Both meetings will be in the commission assembly room, fifth floor, Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater

First meeting: 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The commission meeting includes a public hearing on whether to amend the county's charter to require a referendum before selling county environmental lands. County staff also will suggest two revisions to the proposal. If commissioners agree, county voters would consider the charter amendment during the general election Nov. 4. To see the proposal without staff's most recent suggestions, go to www.pinellascounty.org/scienceforum/charter_

amendment.htm#draft.

Second meeting: 9:30 a.m. to noon Thursday. A proposed update to the Brooker Creek Preserve Management Plan is the second of two items in a commission work session. It would create two overlays over large parts of Brooker Creek Preserve that allow utility uses. The commission could vote on the plan at its Aug. 19 meeting.

Ballot question

If county commissioners agree with staff's most recent recommendation for a charter amendment on environmental lands, voters on Nov. 4 would read this question: "Shall the Pinellas County Charter be amended to designate certain County-owned lands as environmental lands, and to require approval by a majority vote of the electors to remove the environmental lands designation, or to convey any fee simple interest in designated County-owned environmental lands, or to lease or license any interest in designated County-owned environmental lands for a period longer than ten years?"

Commission to decide whether voters have say in land protection 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:26pm]
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