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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.