EAST LAKE — Pinellas County staff members have a favorite selling point for land use changes that would allow five-story industrial buildings or a reservoir on nearly 900 acres of the Brooker Creek Preserve.
They say both the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve and the Environmental Science Forum, a county environmental advisory group, support the county's proposal.
But that support from environmentalists apparently is far from enthusiastic.
"If you don't think you have a chance, if it's going to happen with or without you, then you come to the table and try to make the best out of a bad deal," Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris said last week at a Pinellas Planning Council meeting. "Because ultimately, in their souls, they would still like it kept as a true preserve."
Billiris, chairwoman of the council, got it exactly right, said Barbara Hoffman, vice chairwoman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve and the head of the science forum committee that worked with the county on the land use proposals.
"That's precisely what we did," Hoffman said Wednesday. "We made a deal with the devil."
Even though 893 acres north of Keystone Road would be subject to tall utility buildings, the county agreed to use no more than 260 of those acres. Sixty of those acres are already in use: a site cleared for a water blending plant and two existing utility facilities. If the county needs to build on the remaining 200 acres, it will work with land managers and the Friends of Brooker Creek to consider environmental issues when selecting a site.
"We wish the Brooker Creek Preserve could be a Garden of Eden," Hoffman said. "But it has that serpent in it.
"But it's that serpent who also used funding to purchase the lands and put it under the, quote, Brooker Creek Preserve."
If any Friends are feeling remorse at the deal, it hasn't been sealed yet. It comes before the County Commission for a final vote on May 5.
The proposal hit a bump last week when the Pinellas Planning Council, composed of mayors and other elected officials, voted 8-4 against it.
The council is the last stop for changes to the Countywide Future Land Use Plan before the proposal goes to the County Commission. The Planning Council recommended that the acreage subject to tall buildings be limited to the 60 acres already in use, instead of the 893 the County Commission has the authority to approve for itself.
How will the Planning Council's vote affect the commission vote?
Commissioner Susan Latvala let out a short laugh Wednesday.
"Not at all," she said.
Latvala said the county's utilities department purchased the land that will be for utilities use.
"Not knowing what we will need in the future, it is a wise and prudent thing for us to specifically designate only a small portion of this land for those purposes," she said.
At least one commissioner will oppose the land use changes.
"If it involves 75-foot-tall buildings, I will keep an open mind and vote against it," said Commissioner Neil Brickfield.
He and Mathew Poling, a University of Florida freshman who is suing the county over the land use changes, have been the most vocal opponents of industrial buildings in the preserve. Poling's suit comes up for a court hearing again in late May, one of three dates the county offered, all too late to stop the land use changes he has been fighting.
Brickfield said he and Poling are not the only ones who oppose the changes. Thousands of residents feel the same way.
"I'm surprised at how many people come up to me and talk about the Brooker Creek Preserve," he said. "And you know what they say to me?
" 'Brickfield, a preserve is a preserve.' "
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.