CLEARWATER — Mathew Poling, the college student from East Lake who is fighting to protect Brooker Creek Preserve, may have gained an ally.
Commissioner Neil Brickfield was the lone "no" vote Tuesday night as the County Commission approved a measure that will allow further development of the Brooker Creek Preserve.
"I read the original Brooker Creek master plan and I didn't see any mention of pumping or blending plants," Brickfield said after the meeting. "If you are going to call it a preserve, that sends a message to the citizens and you have to honor that."
Brickfield, elected in November, is the first county official to veer away from plans the county has developed for more than a year in hopes of ending the controversy over use of the preserve.
Tuesday's action created a land use category that allows utility uses on land set aside for other uses, with the immediate goal of applying it to much of the Brooker Creek Preserve.
Poling, 18, a freshman at the University of Florida, is suing the county to stop the development of the preserve.
He was in chemistry lab when commissioners voted.
"Wow! I'm shocked," Poling said between classes Wednesday. "It's the first time any of them have stood up for the preserve."
Before the vote, Commissioner Susan Latvala said the county's actions in regard to the preserve have been maligned.
"We keep being described as destroying the preserve, doing things that are illegal," Latvala said.
The land in the preserve that would get the new designation was purchased with utility funds, she said, and the first responsibility there is to provide potable water to the public.
No wells are currently in production on the 8,000 acres of the preserve and there are no plans that he knows about to open any wells, Rich McLean, the county's utilities interagency water program manager, said Wednesday.
South of Trinity Boulevard, 45 to 50 preserve acres have already been cleared for a water plant. Site work is completed and design work is mostly done, too.
But on Wednesday, Tom Crandall, the county's utilities director, could not say whether the plant will ever be built there. "It's under review by the county administrator," he said.
At the meeting Tuesday, Ralph O'Fallon of Palm Harbor, a retired city planner and engineer, also spoke against land use changes for the preserve.
"If this proposition is passed, Brooker Creek Preserve will be a misnomer," he said, and also slammed the county's planning department as "dormant."
The new land use category will be applied to both the county's local land use map in March and to the countywide map in April.
Brickfield's position Tuesday is consistent with his campaign literature, which said, "a preserve is a preserve."
When commissioners decided to buy the Eldridge-Wilde wellfield last year, Brickfield said they told the public up front that part of it would be for ballfields. "That's a different thing than saying, 'It's a preserve' and coming back and saying, 'We want to change the land use.'"
Is he concerned that preserve land may be needed for drinking water?
"If the situation arose where the need was so strong, the public would tell us to pump," he said. "And clearly, they are not telling us that."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.