CLEARWATER — Over the objections of some environmentalists and residents, Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday designated part of Brooker Creek Preserve for water treatment plants, storage tanks and pipelines.
The 8,000-acre preserve in northeast Pinellas is a key location for wildlife and a watershed in Tampa Bay. Besides protecting critters, the county began buying land more than 25 years ago to protect the drinking water.
Now part of the preserve eventually could house utility facilities, offices and tall storage tanks — riling some environmentalists and residents. A lawsuit to stop development remains pending.
The board voted 6-1 for the plan, which is set up to help cover future demand for drinking water. Commissioner Neil Brickfield, who has maintained the preserve should stay a preserve, voted no.
"I understand that there are future uses, but I'd like you to go about this far more conservatively — not quite so liberal as the plan that's been presented," said East Lake resident Barbara Walker.
The commission also broke with the Pinellas Planning Council, an advisory agency made up of local governments within the county to review development. The council objected to the plan, saying there were too few specifics to justify allowing more intense development on hundreds of acres.
The strife prompted Commissioner Susan Latvala to apologize Tuesday to council executive director Dave Healey for how some of her comments "were portrayed" in the Times.
Asked last month whether the council's opposition would affect the commission vote, Latvala laughed and said, "Not at all."
The council last month endorsed allowing wells, pumps and water piping on 2,600 acres in the preserve. But the advisory board objected to okaying larger water treatment plants, storage tanks, offices and parking lots, even a reservoir, on 893 acres.
"That's not long-range planning, that's not future land-use planning," Healey said. "That's drawing a line around an area and saying someday we may need some of it for some thing — we don't know."
The county has pledged to use only 260 acres of the 893 for such facilities. It wants the freedom to decide the exact sites and projects later.
"To not have all that level of detail now, I'm okay with," Commissioner Nancy Bostock said. "All of those details would be required when we have an identified need, when we're actually building."
Friends of Brooker Creek accepted the plan, though begrudgingly because leaders said there was little chance of Pinellas keeping the land purely a preserve. At least the county "backed away" from using even more acres, said Allyn Childress, who chairs the friends.
But critics worry more than 260 acres could be built on because of Tuesday's decision.
County officials say the utility projects are justified on the preservation land because water fees were used decades ago to buy the acreage.
"It's been very disconcerting to the public to think that something was one thing," Latvala said, "when we thought it was something different."
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.